GMO ban could snare conventionally bred crops

Published online: Jun 07, 2014

An ordinance that prohibits biotech crops in Oregon’s Jackson County is vague enough to encompass some conventionally bred crops, according to ban opponents.

The recently-passed ballot initiative contains a broad definition of genetic engineering that could make conventional growers an easy target for lawsuits, they say.

While ban proponents claim that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were narrowly defined, they won’t necessarily be enforcing the ordinance, said Ian Tolleson, governmental affairs associate with Oregon Farm Bureau.

“It could be interpreted a different way,” Tolleson said.

A plaintiff with an expansive interpretation of the “genetically engineered” definition could sue over crops that were never regulated by USDA, he said.

“A lot of conventional crops are bred using pretty radical techniques,” said Steve Strauss, an Oregon State University forestry professor who specializes in biotechnology.

Biotech alfalfa and sugar beets genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate herbicides are prominent examples of the GMO controversy in Oregon.

These crops were developed by inserting genes from potentially pathogenic soil bacteria into alfalfa and sugar beets, so the USDA restricted their cultivation as possible plant pests.

The agency eventually deregulated the crops, allowing them to be grown freely, which triggered years of litigation.

Language in the Jackson County GMO ban, however, doesn’t appear to limit the prohibition to plants that incorporate genes from other organisms.

The ballot initiative defined genetic engineering to include gene deletion, gene doubling and changing gene positions, among other techniques.

Shifts in gene sequences can be achieved through conventional breeding, said Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which supports biotechnology.

The concern is that it will be up to plaintiffs to determine which method of altering gene sequences is acceptable and which isn’t, he said.

For example, modern breeders use chemical “disruptors” to force chromosome doubling in crops, said Strauss.

“You’re basically screwing up the process of chromosomal sorting,” he said.

This technique seems to fall under the ordinance’s definition of genetic engineering, as does “cutting and pasting” of genetic sequences within the same plant, he said.

“It will depend on whether someone files a lawsuit about it,” Strauss said.

The ordinance’s language is in line with the internationally recognized definition of genetic engineering, said George Kimbrell, attorney with the Center for Food Safety, which supports the ban.

“Any arguments that it is over-inclusive or improper have no basis,” Kimbrell said.

Farmers in Jackson County are well aware which crops are considered genetically engineered, so the idea of litigation over conventional crops is “ludicrous,” he said.

Kimbrell did acknowledge that the GMO definition doesn’t distinguish between crops that came under USDA regulation and those that did not.

“What the USDA does or does not do is irrelevant to the ordinance,” he said.

The USDA could have partially restricted production of genetically engineered alfalfa in some areas but ultimately back away from the idea, Kimbrell said.

The agency’s unwillingness to strongly regulate GMOs was the reason the Jackson County ordinance was necessary, he said.

“Farmers are not getting the protection they’re entitled to from the federal government,” Kimbrell said.