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Judge tosses out JoCo's GMO ban

Josephine County's voter-imposed ban on genetically engineered crops was struck down today by a local judge who ruled that the county restriction was trumped by a state law banning local anti-GMO rules.

Josephine County Circuit Court Judge Pat Wolke tossed out the county's GMO ban in a seven-page ruling that said the so-called Seed Bill signed into state law in October 2013 specifically pre-empts the county's ban on genetically engineered plants passed by voters seven months later.

The Josephine County ban differed from a Jackson County anti-GMO ordinance that was passed by voters before the state law went into effect, because the state law specifically exempted Jackson County's ban. 

“In this case, the conflict could not be more clear that the County’s GMO ordinance, and (state law) are incompatible," Wolke wrote in his ruling. "The state law says that the localities may not legislate in this area; and the voters of Josephine County have attempted to legislate in the exact same area. It is impossible to read the two enactments in harmony; so that the local ordinance must give way.”

Scott Dahlman from the group Oregonians for Food and Shelter said the ruling does more than affirm that farmers will be playing by the same rules regardless of what county in Oregon they live.

"It sends a clear message that this law is constitutional and it keeps counties from regulating crops, specifically GMO crops," said Dahlman, who declined to reveal whether Oregonians for Food and Shelter helped bankroll the legal fight.

The ruling was in favor of sugar beet farmers Robert and Shelly White, who sought to plant biotech sugar beets on 100 acres of leased farmland. The nonprofit Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families and organic seed producer Siskiyou Seeds intervened to defend the ordinance for the county, which remained neutral in the suit.

County Counsel Wally Hicks said he was not surprised by Wolke's ruling, saying it relied strongly on a previous Oregon Supreme Court ruling that sets a standard that state law pre-empts local law when they are incompatible.

"The intervenors didn't have a counter to that claim," Hicks said.

Lawyer Melissa Wischerath from the Center for Sustainability Law in Eugene intervened on behalf of the county in the case. She said today that she was disappointed by the decision but declined further comment.

Hicks said it would be up to the county board of commissioners to decide whether the county will appeal. Hicks has scheduled a Wednesday afternoon executive session with the board to discuss the ruling.

—Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.