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Suit threatens family farms, democratic vote

As a family farmer and molecular biologist one of us learned about the risks of genetically engineered crops from a laboratory and the other from a farm. But like 66 percent of Jackson County voters, we supported Measure 15-119 because we agreed that no farmer should have their crop destroyed due to contamination from a neighbor growing genetically engineered crops.

For the 150-plus farms that supported Measure 15-119, its passage brought a major sigh of relief. Their crops would now be safe from contamination from genes patented by Monsanto, Syngenta and the other chemical corporations that bankrolled the nearly $1 million opposition to 15-119. Local farmers have already started planting seed crops, such as table beets and chard, that they could not grow for years because of the contamination risks from Syngenta’s genetically engineered sugar beets that cross with these species.

The recent lawsuit attempting to overturn our democratically decided vote, however, threatens family farmers once again. While two genetically engineered alfalfa growers are the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, the suit is undoubtedly orchestrated and funded by the same out-of-state chemical corporations that fought 15-119. In the face of this suit, our county commissioners should aggressively defend the public’s vote and support Our Family Farms Coalition’s efforts to help defend the lawsuit by intervening in the case.

As a senior U.S. EPA scientist in charge of research on biosafety issues of genetically engineered organisms, I first had concerns about how genetically engineered crops could cross-pollinate traditional crops in the mid-1980s. The obvious question was, how would farmers growing traditional crops be impacted if their crops were cross-pollinated by a genetically engineered crop? At that time, this concern was largely theoretical, but industry and federal agencies ignored the risks. Today, we know there are huge economic and environmental problems associated with GE crops — and they are not theoretical.

As a farmer in Jackson County, the threat of genetically engineered crops hit home when my family learned that the Swiss chemical corporation Syngenta was growing genetically engineered sugar beets close to our farm. While our climate was perfect for growing high-value table beet and chard seed crops, we could not plant them because of the risk of contamination from Syngenta’s sugar beets. If any of my seed crops were contaminated, they would not only be legally unsellable under U.S. patent laws but our buyers, like many international buyers, simply would not buy them.

The lawsuit claims that 15-119’s protections against genetically engineered crops violate Oregon’s Right to Farm law. But the recent news only highlights why Measure 15-119 is more important than ever for farmers.

For example, China blocked almost all U.S. corn imports after Syngenta’s genetically engineered corn was found to have contaminated U.S. corn shipments to China. This cost U.S. corn farmers more than $1 billion. Corn growers and major agricultural players such as Cargill and ADM filed a federal lawsuit last month against Syngenta, which has refused to pay for the damage it caused. U.S. rice farmers several years ago won $750 million in a similar lawsuit against Bayer Crop Science after its genetically engineered rice contaminated U.S. rice supplies. Farmers should not have to go to court just to get paid for their crops.

Monsanto also finally agreed last month to pay Northwest wheat growers $2.4 million in damages after its genetically engineered wheat was found to have escaped onto just one Eastern Oregon farm. Within days of the discovery, our two largest wheat importers, Japan and South Korea, had banned all Oregon wheat imports.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recent alfalfa exports from the U.S. to China are also in quarantine due to detection of GE traits. Roundup-resistant alfalfa traits from Idaho farms have also spread into conventional alfalfa seed crops as far away as Montana and Wyoming. Given the easy spread of genetically engineered alfalfa, this should not surprise anyone. In fact, the first Washington farmer to have his field contaminated with genetically engineered alfalfa discovered it in August 2012. This is why last March alfalfa growers in Imperial County, Calif., successfully pressured Monsanto to keep their genetically engineered alfalfa out of their county.

While the lawsuit to overturn 15-119 claims plaintiffs should be able to grow genetically engineered alfalfa, there is no way to avoid the risk that growing genetically engineered crops puts on farmers growing traditional crops. We believe that no farmer should have the right to damage his neighbor’s crop and that’s why our county commissioners should strongly oppose any effort to keep 15-119 from being enacted as it was approved by voters.

Elise Higley of the Applegate Valley is director of Our Family Farms Coalition. Ray Seidler, Ph.D., of Ashland is a former EPA scientist in charge of biosafety research.