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Jackson County groups to have say in Josephine County GMO suit

A Williams organic seed farmer and an anti-GMO group will have a voice in a lawsuit against Josephine County by former farmers of genetically modified sugar beets.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Newman ruled Wednesday against a motion by the farmers' attorney, John DiLorenzo, to keep Siskiyou Seeds and Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families from being granted intervenor status in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit contends Robert and Shelley White of Cave Junction were harmed by Josephine County's ban on GMO crops, which was passed by voters in 2014. GMO is short for genetically modified organisms.

"It is kind of a big deal," said County Legal Counsel Wally Hicks. "Now you have the advocates of the original measure arguing against the plaintiffs in the case working to overturn it."

A spokeswoman for OSFF, which spearheaded the drive to ban GMO crops in Josephine County, said the group was pleased with the ruling.

"OSFF is standing up for all Oregonians. We fully intend to continue to defend the win," Mary Middleton said in a statement. "The citizens of Josephine County and beyond deserve nothing less than a complete look at the legal issues and constitutionality of this matter."

Siskiyou Seeds grows chard, a close relative of sugar beets, which have been the main GMO crop in this area, and owner Don Tipping fears its crop would be contaminated by GMO beets. OSFF is also concerned with increased pesticide use on GMO crops.

As of September when the ban took effect, it appeared that Swiss biotechnology giant Syngenta had quit contracting with local farms to grow GMO sugar beet seeds in the area.

Lorenzo said in an email he wasn't surprised at the judge's decision Wednesday.

"In light of the county's decision to not defend the ordinance, the court's decision to permit someone to do so was not totally unexpected. We disagree with that decision based on the law, but assume there were practical considerations which also played a part."

Josephine County's answer to the original complaint, filed Oct. 14 by Hicks, was as follows:

"County government must represent and implement the will of the citizenry. Josephine County wishes only to fulfill its responsibilities to the citizenry, and will rely on the judgment of this court to guide it. Josephine County therefore joins in the request for this court to declare the validity or lack thereof, of Josephine County Ordinance 2014-007.

Before Josephine County's ban, the state Legislature passed a law forbidding counties to ban GMOs.

But anti-GMO activists believe the state's attempt to block local bans was illegally backdated.

Jackson County also voted to ban GMOs, and was exempted from the state law. Jackson County's GMO ban is the subject of a separate federal lawsuit brought by farmers who claim they should be compensated by taxpayers for any financial losses caused by the ban.

Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com