SALEM — A proposed bill imposing new financial liability on biotech patent holders in Oregon would effectively banish genetically engineered crops from the state, opponents claim.
Under House Bill 2739, biotech patent holders would be liable for triple the economic damages caused by the unwanted presence of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The bill is now before the House Rules Committee, which is considering an amendment clarifying when landowners can file lawsuits over GMOs on their property and the defenses available to patent holders, among other provisions.
The amendment would also ensure that patent holders cannot transfer liability to farmers who cultivate GMOs, though they could transfer liability to seed companies.
“It’s putting the onus on the producers and people who sell these crops rather that grow them,” said Amy van Saun, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit that supports HB 2739.
By making patent holders liable for unwanted GMO presence — either through cross-pollination or seed dispersal — the bill reduces potential conflicts among farmers, said Elise Higley, executive director of the Our Family Farms Coalition, which supports HB 2739.
“We don’t believe the GE farmer should be held responsible when they follow all the rules,” Higley said during a May 23 legislative hearing.
Biotech crops have “tracer genes” to identify patent holders, eliminating confusion about the source of an unwanted GMO, she said. “There’s no arguing about it. It’s just black and white science.”
Critics of HB 2739 believe the underlying goal of the proposal is to stop production of GMOs in Oregon.
For developers of genetically engineered crops, the risk of lawsuits would likely outweigh the benefits of licensing biotech traits to growers in the state, opponents say.
“If this bill passes, those seed companies may stop selling to Oregon completely,” said Shelly Boshart-Davis, whose family plants genetically engineered alfalfa between rows of hazelnut trees.
Likewise, Oregon State University breeders would be reluctant to use new gene editing techniques due to the financial risks of licensing the resulting crop varieties, said Dan Arp, dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“As the patent holder, we would be liable for the judgment,” Arp said.
The bill was subject to sharp questioning by several Republican lawmakers, but the committee’s chair, Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, ended the hearing without any remarks about HB 2739’s future, such as a possible work session.
In April, the House Judiciary Committee moved the bill without recommendation to the House Rules Committee, where it’s not subject to the same legislative deadlines as in other committees.