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Lawsuit reopens the GMO debate

A lawsuit filed by alfalfa growers against Jackson County essentially starts the debate over genetically modified crops all over again. This time, a court will decide, not voters.

In the May election, Jackson County voters adopted an ordinance banning the growing of genetically modifed crops in the county. Proponents, many of them organic farmers raising Swiss chard and other crops for seed, argued that GMO sugar beets grown near their farms threatened their livelihood by increasing the risk of cross-pollination, making it impossible for them to sell their seed crops to customers who insisted on GMO-free seed.

Opponents of the ban argued that it violated Oregon's Right to Farm Act, which prevents ordinances that treat ordinary farming practices in farming areas as a nuisance. Examples include odors from livestock and the spraying of pesticides. Supporters rejected that argument, saying farmers could switch to non-GMO crops and continue to farm.

Schultz Family Farms and James and Marilyn Frink  say it's not that simple. The alfalfa growers have filed suit in Jackson County Circuit Court, claiming the GMO ordinance violates the Right to Farm Act. The complaint alleges the law will require the Schultzes and the Frinks to tear out hundreds of acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa and wait four years before replanting, at a cost of more than $4 million in lost income.

This dispute is not about the relative safety of GMO crops. Humans don't eat alfalfa; cattle do. There is no evidence that the meat of cattle-fed GMO alfalfa is unsafe to eat.

The legal dispute boils down to who is harmed economically. Organic farmers supporting the GMO ban said they were harmed economically because the presence of GMO sugar beets in the Rogue Valley threatened their livelihood. The dispute was portrayed as small family farmers doing battle with huge multinational corporations growing GMO crops on leased land.

The alfalfa growers are arguing that the GMO ban shifted the economic harm from organic family farms to their family farms. The court will now decide whether the GMO ban violates the state Right to Farm Act.

The voters gave their verdict in May. But it now appears the final verdict will come from a courtroom.