SALEM — Two bills that would have allowed local governments in Oregon to regulate genetically engineered crops have both died in the legislature.
Lawmakers prohibited most local governments from restricting seed in 2013, but Senate Bill 1037 and House Bill 2469 would have exempted genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, from that statewide pre-emption law.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said he’s decided to let SB 1037 die during the April 13 meeting of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs.
A legislative deadline previously killed HB 2469 in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
There are still too many looming questions about the extent of cross-pollination from GMOs and the efficacy of mediation aimed at promoting coexistence, Dembrow said.
“I want to get a sense if there are problems with contamination or if there are problems with the mediation process,” he said.
The committee recently heard conflicting testimony about the frequency of cross-pollination among genetically engineered, conventional and organic crops.
While supporters of SB 1037 said they face market shutdowns from the presence of biotech traits in their seeds, opponents of the bill said very few organic growers reported crop loss from GMOs to USDA.
No growers in Oregon have taken advantage of a mediation program overseen by USDA to resolve GMO disputes, said Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, which opposes the bill.
The right to self-determination among local governments versus the efficiency of statewide agricultural rules was also debated during the legislative hearing.
“We’re asking for flexibility in Oregon,” said Mary Middleton, director of Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families, a group that supported a ballot initiative banning GMOs in Josephine County.
While voters in Josephine County voted in favor of the GMO ban in 2014, a state judge has ruled the ordinance is pre-empted by state law.
Middleton urged the committee members to “honor the will of the people” by passing SB 1037, which would retroactively make Josephine County’s ordinance effective.
Proponents of SB 1037 argued that lawmakers passed the statewide pre-emption on local seed rules with the understanding that Oregon regulators would step into the breach, but that hasn’t materialized.
“Our farms remain at risk of contamination because the state has not put any protections in place,” said Carol Valentine, a Josephine County resident.
The Association of Oregon Counties opposes SB 1037 because genetic engineering is a complex issue best left to the state government, said Mike McArthur, the group’s executive director.
“This is not the proper role for a county government to be engaged in,” he said.
Lawmakers created an exception to the 2013 pre-emption bill for Jackson County, which already had a GMO ban proposal on its ballot at that point.
McArthur said the government of Jackson County is nonetheless not enforcing the GMO ban due to a lack of resources.
Craig Pope, a Polk County commissioner, said he sympathizes with the organic farming community but said county governments need to focus on public safety and other key services.
“Continuing to hammer at pre-emption is not going to solve this problem,” Pope said.
The economic threat of cross-pollination among organic, conventional and GMO crops was also debated at the April 12 hearing.
Buyers of organic seed have no tolerance for traces of biotech traits, so the risk posed by GMO crops is a one-way street that can only damage organic growers, said Don Tipping, an organic producer in Southern Oregon.
“For us, this is an economic issue,” he said.
Helle Ruddenklau, a seed grower in Polk County who opposed SB 1037, said the problem of cross-pollination isn’t limited to GMO crops, but farmers find ways to resolve the issue.
For example, if a neighbor is planting a related seed crop, Ruddenklau establishes a buffer strip to distance her crop from the pollen, she said.
“That’s a financial burden for us, but it’s a cost of being a certified seed grower in Oregon,” she said.