SALEM — A new task force aimed at fleshing out the controversies over genetically modified organisms in Oregon includes members with strongly contrasting points of view.
The goal will not be to develop policy recommendations for the state’s legislature, said Richard Whitman, natural resources policy director for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.
“It’s not a normal task force we set up to develop a consensus,” he said during its first meeting in Portland on April 10.
Because genetic engineering is fraught with deep philosophical divisions, the purpose of the task force is to frame the issue and inform lawmakers, Whitman said.
The forum will allow members to air different perspectives “without the final struggle of trying to convince everybody in the room to go in the same direction,” he said.
The 13 members of the task force, appointed by Kitzhaber, include advocates for and against genetically engineering, as well as non-profit groups, business interests, university professors and a state government official.
The governor promised to convene the task force last year, after the state legislature approved a bill to preempt local governments from regulating GMOs.
The bill was part of a broader legislative packaged of pension and school reforms backed by Kitzhaber.
The task force is expected to draft a report to advise lawmakers about potential conflicts between GMOs and conventional and organic crops.
The first meeting was co-convened by Dan Arp, dean of OSU’s School of Agriculture, and Jennifer Allen, director of Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions.
It’s rare to have people on different sides of the issue in the same room together, said Steve Strauss, an Oregon State University professor who studies biotechnology in forestry.
However, it remains to be seen how much they can illuminate the GMO controversy, given the large amount of attention the topic has received, he said.
“I’m concerned we may not develop new things that are tangible,” Strauss said. “I’m worried whether we’ll be able to do something consequential. I hope so.”
Frank Morton, who farms near Philomath, Ore., said he wants the task force to better define some of the language that gets thrown around in the debate.
A leading example is how cross-pollination is characterized. Organic growers view it as “contamination” while GMO proponents call it “adventitious presence,” Morton said.
“My question for people in this room is, when does one turn into the other?” he said.
The Northwest Food Processors Association wants to ensure the task force doesn’t lose sight of broader issues beyond Oregon’s borders, said Connie Kirby, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the group.
Labeling of foods with GMO ingredients would force companies to use different packages than in other states, for example, she said.
“We don’t want to constrain interstate commerce or intrastate commerce as well ,” Kirby said.
Members of the task force are:
Barry Bushue — A farmer from Boring, Ore., and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Katy Coba — Director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Connie Kirby — Vice president of scientific and technical affairs at the Northwest Food Processors Association.
Greg Loberg — Manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Co. and board member of the Oregon Seed Trade Association.
Ivan Maluski — Director of the Friends of Family Farmers, a group that opposed GMOs.
Frank Morton — An organic seed grower from Philomath, Ore.
Jim Myers — Vegetable breeding and genetics professor at Oregon State University.
Marty Myers — General manager of Threemile Canyon Farms.
Paulette Pyle — Director of grassroots at Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a group that supports genetic engineering.
Chris Schreiner — Executive director of Oregon Tilth, an organic certifying agency.
Lisa Sedlar — CEO of Green Zebra Grocery.
Steve Strauss — A professor of forestry at Oregon State University who ran its biotechnology outreach program.
Sam Tannahill — Director of viticulture and winemaking at A to Z Wineworks.