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Bill could gut GMO ordinance, group says

Assurances from Oregon lawmakers that a congressional bill will not gut Jackson County’s ordinance banning genetically modified crops failed to persuade a local farmers group that has opposed it along with other groups.

HB 1599, scheduled for a House of Representatives vote today, would create a federal law that could prevent states from devising their own laws regarding labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms. Language in the bill specifically states that it would preempt local laws as well.

“It’s way too vague and broad,” said Elise Higley, director of Our Family Farms Coalition. “It’s a very dangerous law.”

The coalition supported a successful May 2014 ballot initiative that created a Jackson County ordinance banning genetically engineered crops.

Liz Margolis, spokeswoman for Rep. Kurt Shrader, D-Canby, who is cosponsor of HB 1599, said the bill only preempts state laws on the labeling of food.

“It would not preempt Jackson County’s ban on the cultivation of GE crops,” Margolis stated in an email response.

She said the bill will be amended today to address concerns raised by anti-GMO groups.

Margolis said the bill was designed to create a uniform federal standard for food labeling administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than a patchwork of regulations from state to state.

A summary of HB 1599, known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, on the congressional website reads, “This bill preempts state and local restrictions on GMOs or GMO food and labeling requirements for GMOs, GMO food, non-GMO food, or ‘natural’ food.”

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said in an email response, “I’ve heard many residents of Jackson County concerned that the bill would overturn the ban on GMO cultivation put into place by the voters. It does not do that. Local governments will retain their authority to regulate agricultural production within their borders.”

Walden said the bill ensures a uniform standard for food labeling, particularly a uniform standard for foods labeled “natural” or “GMO free.”

He said the bill will lead to greater clarity for consumers.

Higley said the bill is supposed to be about food labeling, but it also contains a lot of language about GMOs and GMO-free foods. So far, she said, she has seen nothing to remove her doubts about the dangers of the bill to local farmers.

“If they wanted to exempt state and local laws, they would have included that,” she said.

Higley traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to share her concerns with congressional members about the legislation, which was amended recently to prohibit local ordinances, including Jackson County’s.

“Most people are clearly unaware of what this amendment meant,” Higley said. “This is a frontal attack on our right to protect local agriculture from contamination by genetically engineered crops.”

Detractors of the bill are calling it the “Dark Act,” saying it would leave consumers in the dark because it wouldn’t require labeling to notify consumers whether GMOs were present in a food product, Higley said.

She said HB 1599 would also overturn Vermont’s labeling law, which was passed last year but has faced legal challenges.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety also has criticized the bill as potentially undermining 130 local agricultural laws in 43 states.

“Without a doubt, the underlying bill represents a major threat to state and local government authority,” according to a statement from the Center for Food Safety.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.