Farm organizations say labeling bills deny science, would cost too much
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- More than a dozen bills dealing with genetically engineered crops are circulating the Oregon Capitol, calling for everything from a state ban on their production to labeling all food with GE ingredients. And the mainstream farm lobby has taken notice.
Among bills dealing with biotechnology:
* House Bill 3292 bans certain GE crops from the state.
* House Bill 3290 prohibits growing GE alfalfa in Oregon.
* House Bill 2715 "authorizes counties to establish control areas for commodities containing genetically engineered material."
* House Bill 2532 "makes foods that contain or are produced using genetically engineered material subject to labeling requirements."
Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said he brought forward the labeling bill because "I just think consumers have a right to know whether or not the food they are eating has been genetically modified."
Holvey is chief sponsor of the HB2532, which also is sponsored by Reps. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland.
Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, said OFS opposes the bills on several premises, including that no scientific evidence exists showing GE crops are harmful to grow or consume.
Dahlman said concerns raised by organic farmers fearful that a GE crop could contaminate their crop are unfounded.
"There has never been a farmer who lost their organic certification because of inadvertent presence of GE material," Dahlman said. "The national organic standard is a processed-based standard, so as long as you follow the rules, it doesn't matter if the final product has some inadvertent presence in it. It is still considered USDA organic, because of how it was grown."
Dahlman said concerns that foods with GE materials could be harmful for human consumption also are unfounded.
"There have been over 400 scientific studies that have shown no adverse effects," he said. "It has been in our food supply since 1996. Millions and millions of meals have been served that include genetically engineered ingredients, and there has not been a single case tied to an adverse health issue from genetically engineered foods."
The Oregon Farm Bureau also is opposing the bills.
"We're supportive of people having the ability to utilize the technology," said Katie Fast, vice president of public policy for the Farm Bureau. "And we don't believe the Legislature should be making choices about what crops you raise and how you raise them."
The organizations also oppose the bills calling for labeling of foods with GE ingredients. Dahlman said doing so would be a monumental task that would cost billions of dollars.
"The estimates are anywhere between 75 and 90 percent of all packaged foods have some type of genetically engineered ingredient," Dahlman said.
The only GE bills gaining support from the mainstream farm lobby are two that would pre-empt the local prohibitions on GE crops.
House Bill 3192 and a companion bill in the Senate, SB633, would prohibit a county or local government from placing any restrictions on the production of GE crops. The bills declare that "regulation of agricultural seed ... be reserved to the state" and place a prohibition on "enactment or enforcement of local measures to regulate agricultural seed."
HB3192 is sponsored by Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, who represents a portion of Jackson County, where a GE ballot measure has been proposed. Voters in the county will vote on whether to ban the production of GE crops in the May 2014 ballot.
The bill would supersede the measure, taking authority to regulate GE crops out of the hands of county commissioners, a stance county commissioners around the state support, according to Dahlman.
"We've had conversations with county commissioners across the state and they don't want to have to deal with this at the county level," Dahlman said. "It is too complex an issue for them.
"That's why we have the Oregon Department of Agriculture, where we have expertise, where we have doctorates of plant sciences who can look at this complex issue and know what kinds of regulations are appropriate," he said.
The pre-emption bills have sponsors from both sides of the aisle, Dahlman said. "And I think you will see more and more people come on board, because the bottom line is, regardless of how you feel about GE crops or GE products, most reasonable people can agree that the state level or higher is where this issue should be dealt with," he said.
"No matter how you feel about it, the counties and cities are not the appropriate places to deal with this," he said.
Paulette Pyle, grass roots coordinator for OFS, said she believes SB633 has "a good chance" of getting through the Senate. "But it is going to be a challenge," she said.
"And if it comes out of the Senate, it is doable in the House, but it will continue to be a challenge," she said.
"It just makes sense that you don't have 36 different regulations," she said.