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Do Plants Have Rights? GMO Fight Returns to Oregon with Benton County Vote

Submitted by Food Democracy Now on April 30, 2015 - 3:20pm

By: Molly Harbarger

The battle over genetically-modified food has returned to Oregon, despite attempts by politicians to stop county-by-county bans. And the debate in Benton County is pulling in academics at Oregon State University, who worry any ban there could limit their biomedical research.

"I am by no means pro-GMO, but I think, as a scientist, a research university needs to be able to safely handle dangerous things and understand them," said Philip Mote, director of OSU's Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

Measure 2-89 would create a framework to stop farming that uses genetically-engineered plants or any seeds patented by corporations. Benton County voters will decide May 19 whether farms there will have to rip out GMO crops.

Organic growers are increasingly concerned that their revenues will be endangered by next-door neighbors whose genetically-engineered seeds could drift across fields on the wind, through the water or from birds.

Based on similar arguments, Jackson County passed a GMO ban in May 2014. That ordinance allows research, educational and health facilities to use biotech crops. It is currently being challenged in court.

The Oregon Legislature in 2013 prohibited ballot measures and local governments GMO bans. While Jackson County's was grandfathered in, a measure that passed in Josephine County was stymied. But backers of the Benton County ban are using a different tactic.

Measure 2-89 would give rights to natural resources themselves – bodies of water, soil, trees.

It sounds like the set-up to a joke: "The Willamette River files a lawsuit against a farmer..."

But that's already possible in some areas. Ecuador was the first country to give nature legal rights in its Constitution in 2008. Some communities in the United States are trying to combat fracking with similar "bills of rights" for the Earth.

If passed, Measure 2-89 would allow the soil, water, plants and other natural resources involved in the production and distribution of food to be plaintiffs in lawsuits -- though residents of the county would assist in filing the suits.

Debbie Crocker, whose children are the fifth generation to farm at C&L Farms in Monroe, worries that they would have to always be on guard against litigation if this measure passes. Her husband's family started cultivating sugar-beet seeds in Benton County about 75 years ago. They switched to GMO sugar beets seven years ago.

If the ban passed, Crocker's family would have to rip out about $300,000 worth of sugar-beet crops within 90 days. Crocker also sells the seeds to sugar-beet farmers, who would have to look elsewhere for their supply.

"We're really lucky here in Oregon that there's a market for organic, but there's also a market for conventional," Crocker said. "Our seed is important for the growers we grow it for."

Crocker would prefer a mediation system to hash out disagreements between farmers, rather than a ban.

But organic farmers say their livelihoods are at stake by the existence of genetically-engineered crops nearby.

Organic growers often bear the brunt of testing to prove their produce is free of any synthetic influence when selling to countries that don't buy genetically-engineered food. Japan and South Korea, for example, temporarily suspended orders for testing of soft white wheat when an Eastern Oregon farm discovered that "Roundup Ready" wheat, developed by Monsanto, was mixed in with its non-genetically modified wheat.

"If it gets into our stuff, we're liable, not them," said Harry MacCormack of the corporations and  farmers who cultivate GMO crops. "That's how big agriculture corporations have operated around the world and that's why this thing is aimed at stopping that." 

Supporters of Measure 2-89 say the argument that OSU medical research will be hurt is a ploy by agriculture corporations and growers who want to see continued profits from genetically-modified seeds.

"Unless it's dealing with the local food system, all the outside stuff, like OSU, is irrelevant," MacCormack, an organic farmer at Sunbow Farm in Corvallis. The university's agriculture department does test GMO crops in outdoor growing plots, which the ban would indisputably stop.

The debate reaches beyond college or county borders, though. Patented and genetically-modified seeds are big business and big dollars have been spent fighting measures that aim to ban GMO crops or label GMO products in Oregon. Measure 2-89 is no exception. The opposition group has raised $93,629, mostly from local farm bureaus in Benton, Linn, Multnomah, Yamhill, Klamath-Lake and Jackson counties.

Companies who create and sell genetically-engineered products are also pitching in. Betaseed, a sugar beet-seed company, gave $50,000.

FirstVote PAC, a political action committee that has received contributions from big ag corporations such as Monsanto in past GMO battles, has raised $18,397 for the "no" side in Benton County since January. 

Of that, Dow International, another genetic-engineering company, gave $3,000. Wilco, a large ag supplier, gave $10,000, and Weyerhauser, a large timber company, donated $5,000.

The pro-ban side is working with a significantly smaller budget, just $9,529, mostly from individuals.

In the end, the measure might lack teeth, regardless. The Benton County commissioners are tasked with enforcing the ban, but Chairman Jay Dixon said he's not sure if they have the money or the know-how to enact it.

He's also worried the county's largest employer, OSU, could be hurt by unintended consequences if the ban really does cover what goes on in laboratories and medical research.

"The better way to do it would have been (to) sit down and talk it through, and corrections could be made to the measure to resolve some concerns," Dixon said.

Even then, he's not sure he wants Benton County to be a testing ground for that kind of ordinance. "It shouldn't be done county-by-county in Oregon. This is something that should be statewide."

Originally Published: Oregon Live

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