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GMO opponents ask for seat at defense table

After listening Wednesday to arguments from both sides, U.S. District Judge Mark Clarke said he would rule Friday or Monday on whether several foes of genetically modified crops can join Jackson County in defending the ban on such crops that was adopted in a countywide vote last May.

A crowd of 120 people formed a long line at metal detectors and spilled over into hallways of the Redden Federal Courthouse in Medford as lawyers presented arguments that had already been posted online. Courthouse guards said it was the biggest crowd in memory, except for immigration work.

The ballot measure, approved by two-thirds of voters, bans growing of genetically modified crops in Jackson County. However, two valley alfalfa farmers sued the county in November, saying the new law violates the state’s Right to Farm Act, which shields farmers against suits over “nuisances” associated with typical farming practices.

In the case Wednesday, several groups that were proponents of the GMO ban asked to become intervenors on the side of Jackson County. The county in December decided to postpone enforcement of the measure until courts decide whether the GMO ban violates the older state law.

Asking to be included as intervenors are Our Family Farms Coalition, Ashland farmer Chris Hardy, Oshala Farm in the Applegate, Earthrise Law Center of Lewis & Clark Law School and the Center for Food Safety in Portland.

“Why it’s important that my clients (OFFC, Hardy and Oshala) be intervenors is that these people drafted and proposed the GMO ban and got it passed, so they should have standing and be parties to the case,” said Tom Buchele of Earthrise.

Hardy started the anti-GMO ball rolling in February 2012 after he discovered GMO crops planted for Syngenta near his sugar beet and chard fields.

“The judge was pretty sympathetic and interested to hear what we had to say — and also the other side,” said Hardy. “We’re hopeful.”

The plaintiff’s counsel, David Markowitz of Portland, did not comment to media. The plaintiffs say it would cost them about $2 million each to shift over to non-GMO alfalfa. The seed they use now is Roundup-resistant and is easier and cheaper to grow, they say.

George Kimbrell an attorney with the Center for Food Safety said the hearing "went as good as could be expected."

"It was overflowing with supporters," he said, "so everyone could really see Jackson County cares about this ordinance. It was an amazing turnout. It’s about responsibly regulating GMO, and what we have here is a failure to read that at the state level, so that’s why it’s happening here.”

After the hearing, OFFC Director and Applegate farmer Elise Higley of Oshala Farms said, “We want to uphold a democratic vote. We’ve worked hard on educating the public about the impact of GMO. We claim the ordinance does not violate the Right to Farm Act because GMO is not a nuisance, like dust and tractors.”

Ashland farmer Brian Comnes, one of two petitioners for the ballot measure, said, “It’s important that we get standing in this case, to make sure the law is defended correctly and with vigor and strength. The county claims they are motivated to do that, but we’re intervening because we think they need it.”

In opposing the anti-GMO intervenors, Markowitz said the new law is already well-represented by the county and that potential new intervenors can make their case as friends of the court. He argued that a party’s political and ideological involvement “do not constitute legally protectable interests.” He also said harm to the legal rights of potential intervenors is speculative and not an accomplished fact.

“The county has diligently defended and will continue to defend the legality of the ordinance,” he wrote.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Dozens of people lined up at the federal courthouse in Medford Wednesday to go through security prior to a GMO hearing. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell