Counties support bill pre-empting local GMO controls

Published online: Sep 30, 2013
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A group representing Oregon counties has asked state legislators to prohibit them from regulating genetically modified organisms.

Representatives of the Association of Oregon Counties said the group supports a proposal that would preempt local governments from banning biotech crops or other agriculture practices.

"Counties don't have the expertise or the staff or the money," said Mary Stern, the group's president, during a Sept. 26 legislative hearing.

The proposal is included as part of a broader legislative package aimed at state pension reform and school funding that will be considered at a special session that Gov. John Kitzhaber said he will convene on Sept. 30.

Stern admitted that it's rare for counties to advocate for less local control, but she said it's unrealistic to expect counties to find and hire experts who can oversee biotech regulations.

It has been four months since the USDA announced that unauthorized biotech wheat was found growing in eastern Oregon, but investigators still haven't resolved how the release occurred, she said.

If the USDA has trouble resolving such issues, then county governments would have even greater challenges regulating genetic engineering, Stern said.

"This bill is about government. It's not about Monsanto," she said, referring to a major biotech developer. "Please don't let cities and counties provide this regulation. We can't do it."

Gov. Kitzhaber also testified during the hearing, saying there is "no question" that the biotech preemption bill was outside the framework of the legislative session, but it's necessary to prevent a patchwork of county-by-county regulations.

"This is about whether we should have 36 different GE policies or one state policy," he said, referring to the number of counties in Oregon.

Opponents of the proposal - which passed the Senate as Senate Bill 633 earlier this year but died in a House committee - testified that it should not have been revived.

Ivan Maluski, policy director at Friends of Family Farmers, said the bill shouldn't be included in a package of unrelated pension and tax proposals.

"It takes away local control" without establishing a statewide system of regulating biotech crops, he said.

Maluski said federal and state agencies were not doing their job in regulating biotech crops, as evidenced by unauthorized biotech wheat in eastern Oregon, which is why counties must step up to the plate.

Others who testified offered a variety of viewpoints on genetically modified crops.

Aiden Humphrey, a resident of Lancaster, Ore., said the "biotech fumes" in the countryside around his home were sometimes so strong that his family has to drive around in their car to get fresh air.

He urged legislators not to pass the pre-emption bill.

"It strips away any local control of our food supply," Humphrey said.

Supporters of the bill also testified during the hearing, saying it will prevent onerous new regulations for farmers who produce crops in more than one county.

Brenda Frketich, a Willamette Valley farmer, said county-by-county biotech rules would create a "logistical disaster," as you can't contain pollen within county lines.

"I think we will be faced with impractical laws on what we can grow based solely on fear and emotion," she said.

Rodney Hightower, a farmer near Junction City, Ore., said genetically engineered crops like sugarbeets can be grown responsibly without harming organic farmers.

"It's not a pest," he said. "It's not a boogey man."