SALEM — Nearly four years after barring local governments from regulating genetically engineered crops, Oregon lawmakers are thinking of reversing that policy.
The Oregon Legislature pre-empted all local ordinances over seed in 2013 but is now considering House Bill 2469, which would create an exception allowing local restrictions for genetically engineered crops.
Critics of the bill worry it will pave the way for outright bans on genetically modified crops, or GMOs, such as the prohibition passed in 2014 by Jackson County voters.
Jackson County’s GMO ban was allowed to go forward because the initiative was already on the ballot when the state pre-emption policy was enacted.
Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said it’s unfortunate that some people would rather forbid farmers from growing certain crops rather than letting them resolve conflicts with neighbors amicably.
“I urge you to reject the notion that one grower should be prioritized by the government over another,” said Bushue said at a March 16 hearing before the House Agriculture Committee.
Fewer than 1 percent of organic farmers have reported losing crop value due to GMOs and none of them were in Oregon, Bushue said, citing a nationwide USDA survey.
Also, no growers have taken advantage of a mediation program aimed at resolving conflicts among conventional, organic and biotech crops, passed by Oregon lawmakers in 2015, he said.
Steve Strauss, an Oregon State University professor who studies biotechnology, said lawmakers should ask themselves whether they want Oregon agriculture to be known for innovation or for exclusion.
Scientists are developing new crops with gene editing, which doesn’t involve transferring DNA from one organism to another but could nonetheless be restricted under HB 2469, he said.
Opponents of HB 2469 argue the possibility of local restrictions on genetically engineered crops will create uncertainty for farmers, particularly if they cultivate crops in multiple jurisdictions.
Tim Winn, who produces biotech sugar beets in Benton County, said proponents of GMO bans see farmers like him as “necessary collateral damage.”
“I urge you to please not take my options away,” he said.
Supporters of the bill claim that local governments should again be permitted to set their own rules because the state government has taken no action on GMOs since the 2013 pre-emption policy was approved.
“We were led to believe cross-contamination would somehow be addressed through the Department of Agriculture,” said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who sponsored HB 2469.
The USDA has acknowledged that damages from GMO contamination occur but claims it lacks the authority to prevent such problems, said Amy van Saun, a legal fellow at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that supports greater biotech regulation.
It would be great if the state government tackled the problem, but it’s shown no such intention, she said.
“It’s not coexistence when only one side bears the burden and the costs,” van Saun said.
Growers of conventional and organic seed would be unreasonable to ignore the potential legal liability of selling crops contaminated with patented biotech traits, said Elise Higley, director of Our Family Farms Coalition, which supports HB 2469.
Contaminated seed would also be rejected by buyers who want a GMO-free product, ultimately making it more expensive as it becomes more rare, she said.
“GE farmers end up winning by default and our traditional seed supply diminishes,” Higley said.
Proponents of HB 2469 also discounted arguments against local GMO ordinances, such as the possible confusion from various county-by-county rules.
“So what if there’s a patchwork? There are all kinds of patchworks with different policies and they’re working just fine,” Higley said.
Counties that have enacted GMO bans also haven’t been saddled with additional costs, as predicted by opponents, said Barbara Richard, a Rogue Valley resident.
“None of them have encountered any enforcement issues. They’re self-enforcing,” she said.