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Jackson County waits for court ruling on GMO ban

Jackson County won't enforce a voter-approved ban on the growing of genetically modified crops while the issue is being litigated in U.S. District Court.

In a court document filed earlier this week, Jackson County agreed not to enforce the ban before the court issues a ruling.

Two-thirds of county voters approved the ban during a May election.

The county was sued in November by two local farm operations that grow alfalfa genetically engineered to withstand the application of Roundup, an herbicide used to kill weeds.

The alfalfa farmers argued the ban violates Oregon's Right to Farm Act. If they were forced to tear out their GMO alfalfa, the farmers said they would lose $4.2 million.

The county agreed not to enforce the ban to give the court adequate time to rule on the case and to save money for the county and the alfalfa farmers during the legal process, according to a court document.

The county has presented initial arguments that the ban does not violate Oregon's Right to Farm Act and the alfalfa farmers are not entitled to payment of monetary damages or attorneys' fees by the county. Any harm to the alfalfa farmers is outweighed by the "social utility" of the ban, the county argued in a court document.

On Dec. 10, the Our Family Farms Coalition — which spearheaded efforts to pass the GMO ban — asked Jackson County officials to fight the alfalfa farmers' lawsuit.

The coalition of farmers who don't grow GMO crops also asked the county to enforce the ban while litigation is ongoing.

Elise Higley of Our Family Farms Coalition said the group is disappointed in the county's decision.

"We had hoped they would enforce the measure during this time because of the impacts to non-GMO farmers both locally and internationally," she said. "It's important to be protected. That's what the people voted to do."

Farmers who don't use genetically modified seeds fear their crops could be contaminated via cross-pollination. Some consumers object to GMO products, and numerous countries have blocked imports of GMO crops or traditional crops grown in areas where GMO plants are also grown.

Under provisions of the voter-approved ban, Higley said, non-GMO farmers could still take action against GMO farmers, thereby enforcing the ban themselves.

The lawsuit was first filed in Jackson County Circuit Court but was moved to U.S. District Court in Medford.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.