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Ban on local GMO ordinances challenged in Legislature


SALEM — Farmers overwhelmingly testified against a recent proposal before Oregon lawmakers that would reverse the state’s ability to pre-empt local government restrictions on seeds.

The Oregon Legislature pre-empted such local regulation of seed at a time when several counties were contemplating bans against genetically modified crops in 2013.

Lawmakers approved the proposal as part of a broader legislative package that included reforms to the state’s public employee retirement system that was later partially overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, has now proposed a House Bill 4041, which would effectively reverse the pre-emption statute but received predominantly negative feedback during a Feb. 4 hearing before the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness.

Apart from an introduction from Rep. Buckley, most of the people who testified were opposed to the bill.

Marie Bowers Stagg, whose family farms in Lane and Linn counties, said crop decisions are based on soil conditions, market demand and available equipment but should not be complicated by government interference.

“We already have enough risks in our day-to-day life,” she said, noting that H.B. 4041 is written so broadly that it could apply to non-biotech crops, including grass seed.

Rodney Hightower, who grows genetically engineered sugar beets near Junction City, Ore., said the crop has proven to be among the most lucrative on his farm without causing problems to neighboring operations.

If each of the 36 counties in Oregon were allowed to set different policies on seed, it would create an extreme complication for growers, Hightower said. “We can’t move our farm if public opinion moves against one crop that we grow.”

Voluntary cooperation between farmers is the best way to resolve concerns about cross-pollination, said Kathy Hadley, who farms with her father in Polk County and with her husband in Marion County.

Hadley said she grew canola last year and managed to avoid cross-pollination problems with a neighbor who was producing cabbage seed without any involvement from seed companies or the government.

Farmers breathed a sigh of relief when the Legislature passed the pre-emption law in 2013, said Brenda Frketich, who farms near St. Paul, and it’s disappointing the statute is now being reconsidered even though the reasons to avoid a patchwork of regulations are as relevant as ever,

“It’s very hard to farm across county lines if counties have different regulations,” she said. “You can’t keep pollen behind county lines.”

State pre-emption is also necessary to avoid the burden of county governments having to regulate local seed ordinances passed by voters, which they don’t have the capacity to do, said Craig Pope, commissioner of Polk County.

Lawmakers should not even be contemplating such a major change to state policy during the short month-long legislative session in 2016, he said

In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill aimed at strengthening mediation that would resolve differences over genetically modified crops and similar issues between neighboring farmers, said Greg Loberg, manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Co., and president of the Oregon Seed Association.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is now putting together a rule-making committee to flesh out that mediation process, which should be allowed to work before lawmakers try to change the pre-emption statute, he said.

Friends of Family Farmers, a group that supports stronger regulations for biotech crops, is neutral on H.B. 4041, but believes there should be a statewide policy for such crops.

Last year, a bill that would have clarified the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s “control area” authority over biotech crops was called draconian by opponents and never gained traction, said Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers.

The ODA currently uses that control area authority to prevent genetically engineered bentgrass from being grown in the Willamette Valley, but would lose that power if the crop were deregulated by USDA, Maluski said.

If that were to happen, some form of local control would be needed to protect farmers, he said.

The House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness is scheduled to hear testimony on Feb. 9 on another piece of legislation, House Bill 4122, which also focused on the pre-emption statute but only allows local governments to regulate biotech crops, rather than all seed.