A well-financed campaign aimed at defeating a proposed ban on genetically modified crops in Josephine County is targeting voters concerned about crime. The campaign has sent out mailers depicting a masked burglar and a hooded gunman — unlikely images when the main issue in the campaign is agriculture.
A campaign spokesman said the mailers are justified because enforcing a ban would divert funding away from county law enforcement.
Classic scare tactics, counter those seeking the ban.
“Our measure will have absolutely nothing to do with crime in Josephine County,” said Mary Middleton, a chief petitioner for Measure 17-58, which would ban GMOs in Josephine County. “We project enforcement costs to be negligible to nothing.”
The mailer campaign is vexing not only for opponents of GMO but also for supporters of the actual public safety funding measure on the same May 20 ballot. Measure 17-59 is a proposed tax to fund the county jail and Juvenile Justice Center.
Pat Fahey, among the leaders seeking passage of the public safety levy, said he found the anti-GMO crime mailers misleading and offensive.
“To come out and say it’s diverting funds — I think it’s probably a false argument,” Fahey said.
“I can’t imagine the county going after them (ban violators) very much, because we don’t have that many GMO farmers.
“I think it’s too bad, because public safety should be thought of in the absence of other issues,” Fahey continued. “I take offense to that. It is too important an issue to muddy up.”
Fahey surmised that the campaign against the ban was trying to piggyback on the jail levy campaign. A spokesperson for the campaign against the ban said voter concern about law enforcement indeed figured in the mailers.
“You try to grab someone’s attention,” explained Ian Tolleson, who does work for the Oregon Farm Bureau and the Good Neighbor Farmers political action committee that is working to defeat the proposed GMO ban. “This (the ban) takes money out of county budgets, which tend to go toward law enforcement. What’s more important than law enforcement?
“There’s a code enforcement officer that would have to go out and inspect crops,” Tolleson said.
Tolleson also contends the county might be sued if the GMO ban passes, costing the county more money.
“If it does pass and they don’t enforce it, I think that would open up the county to be liable,” Tolleson said, adding that farmers themselves might sue if the ban is approved.
“If you have a county regulating agriculture, I think it’s plausible that flies in the face of right-to-farm,” he said.
On yet another issue — the $600,000 in out-of-area money pouring into the campaign against the ban — Tolleson suggested it showed widespread support for his organization’s efforts. Donors included Farm Bureaus in other states, along with Monsanto and Syngenta, companies that produce GMO seeds.
“You have the majority of agriculture saying this is wrong,” Tolleson said. “Why is that bad?”
Not surprisingly, Middleton doesn’t like the opposition’s mailers.
“Those mailings are outrageous,” Middleton said. “They are using scare tactics.”
An attorney supporting the ban, Stephanie Dolan of Grants Pass, agreed with Tolleson that the county could be sued if the GMO ban passes.
However, she said private attorneys were prepared to offer their services for free to defend the county.
“I believe there will be a legal challenge,” Dolan said. “We have a team of attorneys statewide that are strategizing to assist with the defense. A team of pro bono attorneys.”
Dolan additionally said that a law approved during a special session of the Oregon Legislature in the fall of 2013, Senate Bill 863, precludes counties from banning GMO crops, but she believes the law is unconstitutional and was illegally backdated.
Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare said the cost to enforce any ban “depends on the degree to which we choose to enforce it.” He noted that already “there’s probably hundreds of violations of our codes we just don’t have the resources to enforce.
“We don’t have that much grown in Josephine County, that I’m aware of,” Hare added.
Fahey, the jail levy proponent, chided the campaign responsible for the mailers.
“It would be nice if they would be interested in finding a true solution to public safety,” Fahey said. “If they want to help us with public safety, it would be nice if they used their money and efforts for a true solution, not using us as a ploy for their political purposes.”