MEDFORD, Ore.—Voters passed a county-wide ban on genetically engineered plants here May 20 by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
The ordinance says crops such as Roundup Ready alfalfa and commercial sugarbeet seed plots with GMO cultivars must be removed from Jackson County within one year.
Elise Higley, who ran the pro-ban campaign for the Our Family Farms Coalition, was back in the fields the morning after the election, part of a crew setting out thousands of vegetable transplants.
“This is pretty amazing,” she said by phone from the field. “This was such a diverse group of people (in the campaign), an unlikely crowd to come together and fight” for passage.
Higley praised over 600 volunteers who worked getting in ballots until a half-hour before polls closed.
The overwhelming approval came after organic seed growers two years ago led a petition drive putting the 11-page ordinance on the ballot.
A host of opponents representing seed companies and the agricultural establishment mounted a nearly $900,000 campaign to defeat the measure. The $1.2 million spent by both sides makes this by far the most expensive local election in Jackson County history.
Nearly final returns show the initiative passing with 39,489 votes in favor to 20,432 opposed. It will be a couple of weeks before results become official and the ordinance takes effect. Another anti-GMO ordinance passed in neighboring Josephine County, where it faces an uncertain legal future.
Ian Tolleson, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation and spokesman for the opposition campaign, said in an election night interview the debate on GMOs isn’t over. He called the ban a win of ideology over common sense and science.
“You have a misperception here that this (ban) is about Monsanto and Syngenta and it is not,” it’s about being able to farm, Tolleson said. “Agriculture needs to do a better job of telling its story.”
Another initiative opponent saw wider implications from the vote.
“A growing agriculture economy is essential to Oregon’s economic future,” Barry Bushue, the Oregon Farm Bureau president, said in a statement. “The debate over this measure in Jackson County only underscores the need for pragmatic and moderate voices—in government, agriculture and business—to come together to forge policies that don’t unfairly discriminate against certain farmers and farming practices and that support all forms of farming, ranching and agriculture in Oregon.”
Danny Jordan, Jackson County administrator, said in an April report to the board of commissioners that if the ordinance passes, the county government faces questions over the meaning of the citizen-drafted proposal. Among the tough questions is basic language that makes it unlawful to grow genetically engineered plants, and definitions that could apply to some ornamental plants sold by nurseries and home improvement stores.
“There are a ton of variables,” Jordan told the commissioners. Unlike California counties, Oregon has no county-level agricultural departments.
The proposed ordinance was drafted by a subcommittee of GMO Free Jackson County, which is associated with a statewide effort primarily backing a GMO food labeling initiative. Supporters collected nearly 7,000 signatures to qualify the GMO ban for the ballot.
Those who opposed local government action in Oregon said rules regarding genetically modified crops should be enacted at the state or federal level, not through a patchwork of county ordinances.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has directed the state Department of Agriculture to map where genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered crops are grown and asked the department to submit a state action plan for regulating genetically engineered crops. He also created a task force that will examine conflicts between growers of genetically engineered products and other producers.