Sounding off on GMO crops


Ill-advisably, GMO measure foes not going away gently

Cheers of supporters celebrating the resounding victory of the anti-GMO measure had barely died away when opponents started threatening a lawsuit. The lobbying group Oregonians for Food and Shelter should think twice before proceeding.

A suit claiming the GMO ban violates the state’s right-to-farm law not only is likely to fail, but will needlessly prolong hard feelings on both sides of the issue. We did not support the measure, but voters have spoken loud and clear, and it is now the law; opponents should accept that and move on.

The state right-to-farm law, enacted in 1993, is intended to protect ordinary farming practices from challenges by neighbors who object to dust, odors, noise and other normal consequences of farming in rural areas. The law serves an important purpose by preventing land-use conflicts resulting from residential uses encroaching on traditional farming areas.

Opponents of Measure 15-119 argued during the campaign that the measure would violate the right-to-farm law, but that didn’t stop voters from approving the measure 2-1.

Challenging the GMO ban because it supposedly violates the right to farm is off-base.

First, the right-to-farm law addresses conflicts between farm and nonfarm land uses. The Farm Bureau’s complaint involves a conflict between two farm uses — growing GMO crops and trying to grow non-GMO crops without cross-pollination from GMO crops — and that conflict has effectively been eliminated by outlawing one of the two.

Second, Measure 15-119 was carefully worded to incorporate the precise language of the right-to-farm law itself.

The right-to-farm law says farming practices are protected if they are “generally accepted, reasonable, and prudent methods ...” and “comply with applicable law.”

Measure 15-119 says, “Planting genetically engineered crops is not a reasonable and prudent farm practice.” And because the measure bans genetically modified plants, growing GMO crops no longer complies with applicable law in Jackson County.

Third, the right-to-farm law also says: “Right-to-farm protection is not afforded if claims are based on an action of a producer that results in ... damage to commercial agricultural products of another grower or neighboring property.”

Cross-pollination of non-GMO crops by neighboring GMO crops would appear to fall into that category.

Farmers who now raise GMO crops haven’t been told they can’t farm. They’ve been told they can’t grow what they’ve been growing.

If Oregonians for Food and Shelter wants to “defend our farmers down there,” as its executive director declared, it would be better off encouraging them to grow crops that comply with the new law.

— Mail Tribune

Medford, May 25, 2014


Voters swing at Monsanto, but instead hit local farmers

By the THE OREGONIAN (Portland)

Voters in Jackson and Josephine counties banned genetically engineered plants last week. It’s not entirely wrong to consider the result a victory for organic Davids over agribusiness Goliaths. Syngenta and Monsanto, which are in the GE, did contribute to the opposition campaign. But fixating on campaign contributions gets you only so far.

Syngenta and Monsanto don’t live in Jackson or Josephine counties. People do, and some of them are farmers who are now less free to use their land as they see fit than they were just weeks ago. The farmers affected by the ban don’t use GE crops because they want to help agribusinesses. They use them because doing so suits their own purposes.

The GE crop ban is, above all, a property rights issue. Voters who saw in the election an opportunity to hit Monsanto and Syngenta with a crowbar ended up hitting their neighbors instead. Those neighbors aren’t going anywhere, their livelihoods have been affected by popular vote, and the measure explicitly thumbs its nose at the notion that Oregon protects the ability of farmers to operate in the face of development by squeamish urbanites. For these reasons, the fighting may not be over, even though the voting is.

The fight over the Josephine County measure is likely to be brief, as it’s pre-empted by a 2013 law prohibiting local bans on GE plants. But the law, approved as part of a “grand bargain” involving pension cuts and tax hikes, exempts Jackson County’s effort, which qualified for the ballot before the Legislature decided to shut the door.

The measure establishes a 12-month window during which farmers (and everyone else) must purge their property of GE plants. The most commonly grown GE crops in the area are sugar beets, corn and — covering the most acreage by far, according to the Oregon Farm Bureau — alfalfa. A year is a fairly long time, and “nothing will happen in the immediate future,” says Jackson County Commission Chair Don Skundrick. He and his colleagues will take a “wait and see approach” in expectation of potential legal challenges.

Ian Tolleson, a lobbyist with the Oregon Farm Bureau, says farmers opposing the new restrictions may have “several options,” though, he says, “we’re not really sure what the final track will be.” One possibility numerous people have mentioned involves Oregon’s “right to farm” law, which asserts that, for economic reasons, “farming and forest practices must be protected from legal actions that may be intended to limit, or have the effect of limiting, farming and forest practices.”

Ivan Mulaski of Friends of Family Farmers, which sought the ban, isn’t convinced. The right to farm law, he says, “is really about nuisance complaints.” A common example would be complaints about farm-related odors brought by residents of recently built neighborhoods nearby. Time will tell who’s right, but the initiative contains language that clearly affronts the spirit of the law.

Supporters of the ban point to the potential contamination of organic crops by pollen drifting from GE plants. This drift, the initiative says, “can create a significant economic harm to organic farmers.” The degree to which such harm happens in reality has proven difficult to determine. A federal panel studying the issue reported in 2012 that it “wrestled with identifying and quantifying actual economic losses to farmers resulting from unintended presence of GE material in their crops.” That panel, the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, supported coexistence of organic and other crops.

Exaggerated though claims of economic harm due to genetic contamination might be, at least the argument that commercial organic farmers are threatened by stray pollen originating in the fields of commercial GE farmers is consistent with the state’s protection of farming as an important economic activity.

The same can’t be said of the following explicit goal of the GE-crop ban: “Pollen drift from genetically engineered crops can contaminate the plants of citizen gardeners who are within adopted urban growth boundaries ...” In other words, commercial farmers must be tied in knots in order to protect the hobby gardens of urbanites. Isn’t this the sort of nuisance complaint from which state law is supposed to provide protection?

Farmers who use GE crops have other reasons to be dissatisfied, including the fact that the initiative treats all such crops the same. GE alfalfa grown in Jackson County is used mostly for feed and doesn’t go to seed and produce pollen, says Tolleson. Its inclusion in the ban, he says, is “really unfortunate because a lot of the discussion during the campaign was about cross-pollination.”

Affected farmers in Jackson County have plenty of reasons to be angry  and to fight back in whatever way they can. As farmers and others elsewhere in Oregon watch the fight play out, they should be relieved that lawmakers have prohibited locally imposed bans elsewhere, and they should be prepared to fight any effort during or after the 2015 legislative session to backtrack.

— The Oregonian

Portland, May 28

The much-hyped ballot measure to ban most genetically engineered crops in Jackson County passed easily in last week’s election, setting the stage for what appears to be the next battle: A statewide measure, possibly on the ballot this November, to require labeling of GMO foods.

The statewide measure likely will go hand-in-hand with an initiative in Benton County similar to the one in Jackson County, but the Benton County measure will be dogged by questions about its legality, since it comes after a legislative edict blocking county bans. The Jackson County vote had been scheduled before the Legislature passed its bill last fall.

Oregon voters with long memories may recall a similar ballot measure calling for GMO labeling a dozen years ago. That measure failed.

In the last couple years, however, the push to label GMO foods has gained momentum, not just in Oregon, but throughout the country. A fascinating recent article in The Atlantic reported that 84 bills on GMO labeling are pending in 29 states.

This new activity comes on the heels of failed — but hard-fought and very expensive — ballot measures in California in 2012 and Washington state in 2013.

So chances are good that Oregon proponents of GMO labeling will have little trouble collecting by July 3 the 87,000 valid signatures required to put the measure on the ballot.

The problem with GMO labeling, as outlined in The Atlantic article, is pretty simple: The scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe.

This consensus is backed by hundreds of scientific studies — studies that were, as the magazine put it, “independent, non-industry-funded, peer-reviewed, long-range studies.”

Proponents of GMO labeling argue that the testing is incomplete and that much of the agenda has been driven by industry giants such as Monsanto, which has spent millions fighting the measures in Washington and California. Even the fight in Jackson County attracted more than a million bucks on both sides.

The problem, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told The Atlantic, is that labeling on food products either offers nutritional information or signals a potential safety issue. A label on GMO foods wouldn’t address either area.

But there is a way in which labeling could work: Manufacturers of GMO-free products can take advantage of the growing market for those foods by being sure their labels say so, in much the same way that products that have been gluten-free since the beginning of time now brag about that on their labels.

A voluntary labeling effort could allow consumers interested in eliminating GMO foods from their diets the opportunity to do so — without forcing the rest of us to wade through an array of confusing labels prompted by a well-meaning but scientifically dubious crusade.

— Albany Democrat-Herald

May 28, 2014

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