Third anti-GMO initiative under way

Published online: Jul 19, 2013 By Lacey Jarrell
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EUGENE, Ore. -- Another initiative effort to ban growing genetically modified crops is under way in Oregon, bringing to three the number of counties that could vote on anti-GM ballot measures in the next year.

Earlier this month, Support Local Food Rights, a Eugene, Ore., organization, filed an initiative with the Lane County Clerk's Office to ban growing GM crops in the county.

Similar initiatives have been filed in Jackson and Benton counties.

According to chief petitioner Lynn Bowers, the initiative is intended to protect the rights of Lane County residents to grow and sell GMO-free produce, save and share seed and to protect economic and natural systems already in place.

"Our ecology and economy are intimately intertwined. You can't separate the two," Bowers said.

Genetically modified crops are created when specific traits such as herbicide resistance are inserted in the genetic code of plants. It is also variously called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and genetically engineered, or GE.

If approved by Lane County officials, the county council must assign a ballot title to the initiative before the group can begin collecting petition signatures showing support to have the initiative placed on the May 2014 ballot. Bowers said Support Local Food Rights must collect about 8,600 verified signatures to have the measure placed on the 2014 ballot.

Support Local Food Rights, a seven-member group, was founded in September 2012 by community members concerned about the ability for residents to continue producing organic food in Lane County.

"It's an effort to empower our local communities," said Ann Kneeland, an environmental and land use attorney representing Support Local Food Rights. Kneeland has been working with the group since its inception, and she said the discovery of GMO wheat in Eastern Oregon in June reinforced her support for passing the initiative.

"It further demonstrates that this technology can't be contained and cannot grow along with natural and organic crops," she said.

Scott Dahlman, Oregonians for Food and Shelter executive director, said if the initiative were to become a measure and pass, the results could negatively impact farmers by restricting advanced seed technology and creating a messy patchwork of farming regulations.

"(Lane County farmers) will have options taken away that other farmers across the state have," Dahlman said. "They will be at a competitive disadvantage."

Dahlman also said there is no way to know how many, if any, farms are currently growing GMOs in Lane County.

The Lane County initiative was modeled after a ballot initiative filed last October by What's In Our Future Benton County, a Corvallis group seeking similar protections.

"We've worked closely together because both counties recognized the threat to local food systems," Kneeland said.

What's in Our Future's first submission was rejected due to what the county clerk called a violation of the "single-subject rule," which requires measures to deal with one issue at a time. According to the group's website, on June 5 a Sustainable Food System Ordinance was resubmitted to the Benton County Clerk for approval to circulate a petition to residents.

Both initiatives have garnered the support of the non-profit the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has supported actions elsewhere against "fracking," a means of developing natural gas deposits, and high-efficiency "factory" farming. CELDF aided the What's the Future group in drafting the bill of rights the Lane County initiative was modeled after.

"It was the first of its kind," said Harry MacCormack, co-founder of What's In Our Future Benton County and the Benton County Community Rights Coalition.

Next May, Jackson County residents will have an opportunity to cast a vote on Measure 15-119, the state's first approved anti-GM ballot measure. The initiative was approved in January after the group GMO Free Jackson County PAC submitted nearly 7,000 signatures to the county, said Brian Comnes, the initiative's chief petitioner. According to the group's website, this measure would "ban any person from propagating, cultivating, raising or growing 'genetically-engineered' plants in Jackson County."

Similar to Support Local Food Rights in Lane County, GMO Free Jackson County PAC is a volunteer driven organization. The steering committee consists of eight volunteers, but as many as 50 have attended community meetings in Medford and Ashland. According to Comnes, more than 100 farms have signed in support of a ban on growing GMO crops in Jackson County.

"And that's not a trivial number," Comnes said.