Voters in Oregon’s Jackson County last week passed a local measure banning the cultivation of genetically engineered crops.
It is, as an Oregon Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist said, a victory of ideology over science and common sense.
A victory, but not the final word in a campaign that is now destined for the courts.
The Oregon Legislature last year passed a law preempting local governments from regulating genetically engineered crops. The idea was to avoid a patchwork of county regulation, and to give the Oregon Department of Agriculture time to work out a reasonable scheme that addresses legitimate concerns of organic and conventional growers of high-value crops who fear contamination from genetically engineered pollen.
Jackson County’s GMO measure, which was already approved for the ballot at that point, was exempted from that bill.
Now the overwhelmingly urban, non-farming voters there have decided to cut their farmer neighbors off now and in the future from the most promising advances in crop science. They based their decision on things they think they know about genetically engineered crops, the companies that develop them, and the farmers who grow them — things that aren’t true.
It is the equivalent of voters denying their neighbors life-saving vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration because they have sincere misgivings about drug safety and efficacy that are not supported by science. But in a state with the highest percentage of unvaccinated school children, that might happen too if it weren’t preempted by Oregon law.
Opponents of the Jackson County measure contend the ban is preempted by Oregon’s right-to-farm law.
Oregon’s right-to-farm law restricts private lawsuits and local ordinances against common farming practices.
“We believe there is a conflict there,” said Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which opposed the Jackson County ballot initiative.
The right-to-farm law is broadly worded to protect reasonable farm practices. Lawyers unsympathetic to the ban, however, say that may be the rub.
As approved by voters, the Jackson County ballot initiative states that “planting genetically engineered crops is not a reasonable and prudent farm practice” due to the potential for cross-pollination with organic and conventional crops.
Ban supporters dismiss the strategy altogether, claiming the law’s intent was to protect farmers from nuisance suits filed by suburban neighbors.
Assuming Jackson County officials, who had urged voters to reject the ban on logistical grounds, figure out how they will enforce the measure, the restriction goes into full effect next year. Plenty of time to test the conflicting legal theories in court.