Critics claim proposed restrictions on growing biotech crops in Oregon would undermine voluntary coexistence efforts and spark new conflicts between farmers.
Legislation that would give state regulators more authority over the production of genetically modified organisms is touted by supporters as protecting organic and non-GMO growers.
House Bills 2674 and 2675 would both provide the Oregon Department of Agriculture the power to decide where GMOs can be planted and whether to restrict their cultivation to prevent cross-pollination with other crops.
“I want all farmers to succeed and the only way to do that is to coordinate how we’re doing it,” said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, who introduced the bills.
Under HB 2674, ODA would be required to establish “control areas” for biotech crops that allow the agency to set conditions for their production. Any GMOs growing outside such control areas would be considered “an infestation subject to eradication.” Farmers who produce biotech crops would pay an assessment to ODA, with the funds compensating growers who suffer from “contamination” from GMOs.
HB 2675 would authorize ODA to designate production areas for biotech crops, with any GMOs growing outside those zones subject to “control area” conditions. The agency could also create reserves where no biotech crops can be cultivated. Buyers of GMO plants or seed would have their royalty agreements with biotech developers reported to ODA.
The ODA can currently set up control areas to protect crops from pests and diseases and to prevent cross-pollination between canola and related seed crops, said Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers, a group that supports stronger GMO regulation.
“The law is already on the books. It’s a question of what that authority looks like,” he said during a March 5 hearing of the House Committee on Rural Communities, Land use and Water. “There’s precedent here. ODA already does this.”
In 2013, Oregon lawmakers pre-empted local governments from restricting GMOs because such power belongs exclusively to the state, but ODA doesn’t actually regulate them, he said.
However, critics of the proposed legislation say the current system works fine.
By requiring ODA to limit biotech crops, the bills favor other types of farming, said Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
“We don’t want anyone pitted against each other,” he said.
If a farmer enters into a contract vowing to produce seed with no trace of biotech genes, it’s up to the grower to ensure those conditions are met, Bushue said.
“The responsibility for that zero tolerance is not my neighbor’s, it’s mine,” he said.
If the ODA regulates GMOs based on geography, some farmers will want to be within more restrictive areas but others will not, said Greg Loberg, manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Co.
Conflicts between biotech, conventional and organic farmers will persist within each area, he said. “I don’t see any end to that cycle of control areas.”
Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, said he was troubled by the prospect of legislators giving the “thumbs up or thumbs down” to specific crops, which began with the “camel’s nose under the tent” with restrictions on growing canola.
“That’s an exceedingly slippery slope I don’t want to go down,” he said. “I think that’s a horribly wrong foot to get off on.”