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Lawmakers scrap proposal allowing local biotech restrictions

SALEM — A proposal to give local governments in Oregon the power to regulate biotech crops has been scrapped in favor of a labeling requirement for genetically engineered fish.

Lawmakers recently considered overturning the state’s prohibition against local restrictions on genetically modified crops, which was passed in 2013.

Biotech critics claim that local ordinances are necessary to prevent cross-pollination between transgenic, conventional and organic crops because the state and federal governments have failed to act on the issue.

Opponents of the proposal, House Bill 4122, argued that it would complicate farming across county lines, reduce crop options and put a strain on local governments that would have to enforce such ordinances.

The House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness heard extensive testimony from both sides during a Feb. 9 hearing but ultimately decided to “gut and stuff” the bill with language that requires labeling for genetically engineered fish sold at retail.

On Feb. 11, the amended bill was approved 5-3 and is headed to the House floor with a “do pass” recommendation.

Prior to the amendment’s approval, Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Dallas, said it would be unfortunate if the current system of voluntary cooperation among farmers were replaced with a “bureaucratic solution” for cross-pollination concerns.

“They try to solve their problems by talking with each other and working with each other,” Nearman said.

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said she agreed that an ideal solution would allow all types of farmers to co-exist.

“Let’s not pre-empt that possible pathway,” she said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said he also wishes such problems could be worked out amicably, but farmers who fear cross-pollination from biotech crops don’t currently have a system to prevent economic losses.

After the legislature pre-empted local regulation of seeds — including biotech crops — in 2013, their concern hasn’t been addressed, he said.

“I think they have a legitimate issue that needs to be solved,” Holvey said. “I hope the Department of Agriculture solves it or the legislature does in the future.”

Committee Chairwoman Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, said she hopes the recent discussions in the legislature will pressure the Oregon Department of Agriculture to come up with a solution.

Fagan noted that heirloom crop varieties cannot be replaced once they’re lost, so she hopes to give farmers some method to protect such cultivars.

“There is some urgency to this issue,” she said.

A similar bill that would have more broadly reversed Oregon’s seed pre-emption law, House Bill 4041, recently failed to clear the committee.

As for labeling of genetically engineered fish, Holvey said the proposal will likely be subject to further revisions in the Senate if it’s approved in the House.

Transgenic salmon received regulatory approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year but its sale is on hold until the agency devises possible labeling rules.

If the FDA does require such labeling, those regulations would likely pre-empt any rules enacted in Oregon, Holvey said.

Mateusz Perkowski is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.