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Oregon now epicenter of national GMO debate

by: SPECIAL TO PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JEFFREY BALL - Dahviya Davis, a volunteer with Right To Know Oregon, collects petition signatures for a state ballot initiative that would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. A battle is being waged in Oregon’s grocery stores, wheat and sugar beet fields, restaurant tables and pantry shelves.

The long-simmering national debate over genetically modified organisms figures to hit fever pitch this summer, with Oregon at the forefront.

Three separate but related events last month built momentum here for the crusade against GMOs:

• On May 15, the grassroots group Oregon Right to Know launched a statewide initiative campaign to require labeling of all GMO food products.

• On May 20, voters in Southern Oregon’s Jackson and Josephine counties approved measures to ban the growth of genetically engineered crops. Benton and Lane county voters may see similar ballot measures this fall.

• On May 24, an estimated 6,000 people rallied in downtown Portland in the second-annual March Against Monsanto. Elsewhere that day, activists marched in 46 other states and 52 countries on six continents.

“A lot of us are just beginning to understand what GMOs are,” says local mom and backyard gardener Susan Laarman. “It’s been kind of a secret.”

Laarman was the volunteer spokeswoman for the local March Against Monsanto, which targets the St. Louis-based biochemical company that produces Roundup pesticides and Roundup Ready pesticide-resistant seeds for farmers. Monsanto bills itself as a “sustainable agriculture company,” but has produced polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polystyrene (Styrofoam), saccharine, aspartame, Agent Orange and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT).

After the GMO issue put a scare into Oregon’s wheat industry a year ago, everyone from progressives to farmers, Libertarians to environmental activists has been lining up behind the cause.

The United States doesn’t have any labeling requirements, but 64 other countries do. And 85 labeling bills have been introduced in 30 states.

Oregon supporters are trying to collect 87,213 valid petition signatures needed by July 3 to place the measure on the November ballot.

Part of the national frenzy has to do with events in Oregon.

Huge dollars at risk

Laarman says she was a little prescient last year when she made some comments to the media.

“A couple of days before the GMO wheat discovery broke, I’d made a comment about my concerns there would be crossover, and even farmers who didn’t want to grow GMOs would have it cross over into their crops. Then it happened. They said, ‘Did you know something?’ ”

Laarman is referring to the April 2013 discovery by a Pendleton wheat farmer that his crop tested resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. In fact, tests showed it was a variety of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready.

Immediately, Japan and Korea suspended their purchase of wheat from Oregon because they don’t buy GMO-contaminated crops. Hundreds of millions of dollars in wheat exports were at risk.

Asia has since resumed purchases after further tests showed no contaminants, but the story “put Oregon on the map,” Laarman says.

“It pointed out the vulnerability to farmers not able to sell their crops if they’re tainted with GMOs,” she says. “The market is still shaky and farmers are still nervous because prices have fluctuated, and this is Oregon’s main agricultural export crop. There’s too much to risk.”

Property rights issue

An investigation still hasn’t determined how the GMO wheat got into the Pendleton farmer’s crop.

But Elise Higley has an idea.

The owner of a 113-acre farm in Jackson County started talking with her fellow farmers in January to make sure their farms don’t see the same fate as the Pendleton grower.

“This is one of the top five seed-growing regions in the world,” she says. “Seed crops are big money; we deserve the right to save our seed and not grow genetically engineered seeds.”

Higley helped sign on 180 family farms in her county, who became known as the Our Family Farms Coalition and, with the help of 600 volunteers, won a difficult fight to the ballot box.

Part of the impetus came from a fellow farmer in Medford, Chris Hardy. A couple of years ago, he had a beet seed contract. Then he realized a Swiss company called Syngenta was in Jackson County, growing quarter-acre plots in one of the most optimal seed-growing areas in the country.

by: SPECIAL TO PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JEFFREY BALL - Chris, Asher, 4, and Nancy Bjorkman, of Vancouver walk in the March Against Monsanto in downtown Portland May 24. The theme of this years protest against genetically modified foods was Free the Bees, Save the Seeds. According to Higley, Syngenta had been paying owners a nominal fee, such as $500 per year, to grow on a plot of land they were no longer using so the farmer could keep claiming it for tax purposes.

“They had them patchwork throughout our county,” Higley says. “They just kind of infiltrated the area without us even realizing. Once we found out, we said ‘This has got to stop. You’re basically trespassing on our property by spreading your GMO pollen and contaminating our crops.’ ”

Many farmers had been trying to save their seeds to reuse them the next year, but realized they were now contaminated.

“Regardless of your opinion on GMOs and health,” Higley says, “it’s a property rights issue. I think that’s what made this measure so nonpartisan.”

The measure won in a landslide, 65 percent to 34 percent.

Josephine County’s campaign won a similar victory the same day, with 58 percent of the vote.

Expensive slugfest looms

If the statewide labeling campaign in Oregon goes to voters and is approved, it would be the first one on the West Coast.

Washington supporters collected 340,000 signatures to file Initiative 522 last year, but were defeated when Monsanto and other food giants spent $33 million to oppose the measure. Still, 45 percent of voters were in favor.

The year before in California, Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical, PepsiCo, Coke, Kraft and Nestle spent $46 million to defeat Proposition 37. Despite the onslaught of negative ads, 48 percent of voters supported it.

Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman for the Oregon Right to Know campaign, says the proposed ballot measure incorporates lessons learned.

“In Washington, they were able to make highly misleading arguments by taking language from the initiative and twisting, taking out of context, like labeling would apply to dog food,” he says. Oregon’s proposed measure explicitly states that the labeling doesn’t apply to food intended for animals.

Opponents also raised the specter of big lawsuits against companies that don’t comply with the labeling. Oregon’s proposal makes it explicit that there can be no punitive damages included in the legal action.

Passing in New England

Connecticut became the first state to adopt a labeling requirement in June 2013; Maine followed in January.

But both states’ bills require four neighboring states to pass similar legislation before the laws take effect, so those laws are in a holding pattern.

Vermont became the only state to enact a labeling requirement with no strings attached last month. The state will require labels on GMO foods by July 2016, though the Grocery Manufacturers Association promised to sue to overturn the law.

Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an influential trade group long active on pesticides and related issues here, is opposing the Oregon statewide campaign. The group’s executive director, Scott Dahlman, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The group’s website states: “In order to cultivate a prosperous and sustainable environment, human intervention is necessary through pesticides, and fertilizers. There are pests out there that will destroy what nature has given us and we as a society cannot allow that to happen.”

Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord responded to an interview request with a prepared statement, which reads: “The 22,000 people of Monsanto are committed to having an open dialogue about food and agriculture — we’re proud of the work we do, and we’re eager for people to know more about us. We’re also proud of our collaboration with farmers and partnering organizations that help make a more balanced meal accessible for everyone. Our goal is to help farmers do this using fewer resources and having a smaller impact on the environment. We know people have different points of view on these topics, and it’s important that they’re able to express and share them.”

Regarding the initiatives in Southern Oregon, Lord wrote: “This is unfortunate for the family farmers of Jackson County and Josephine County. We believe growers should be able to plant the seeds of their own choice, whether those seeds are conventional, organic or have biotech traits.”