County anti-biotech effort hits snag
Officials say initiative covers too many topics
By MITCH LIES
A hearing date has not yet been set for a ballot initiative sponsored by a group seeking to ban the production of genetically engineered crops in Benton County, Ore.
The group, GMO Free Oregon's Benton County chapter, has challenged a county determination that its initiative petition is invalid. Benton County Clerk James Morales determined the petition covers more than one subject.
Under Oregon law, a ballot initiative can put only one subject before voters.
The petition, submitted Oct. 3, asks voters to authorize a "Benton County Food Bill of Rights Ordinance." As part of the multipage ordinance, the petition declares it "unlawful for any corporation or governmental entity to engage in the planting, growing, cultivating, raising, rearing or harvesting of genetically engineered life forms or genetically modified organisms within Benton County."
The group claims genetically modified organisms pose risks to human health and sustainable and organic farm production.
Morales said he consulted with county counsel before making his determination. The group's challenge of his decision will be heard in Benton County Circuit Court.
Monroe, Ore., farmer Matt Crocker on Nov. 19 intervened in defense of the county clerk's decision.
In the intervening motion, Crocker's attorney wrote: "(Crocker) wishes to retain the right to use genetically modified products among his farm practices."
Further, attorney John DiLorenzo wrote: "The proposed measure ... would ban many of these practices to his financial detriment."
If the court finds in favor of the GMO-free group, petition backers would have two years to gather 2,171 valid signatures to place the petition on a ballot, Morales said.
Meanwhile, backers of a similar initiative that would ban the production of genetically modified plants in Jackson County appear close to submitting their petition.
The Jackson County chapter of GMO Free Oregon, wrote on a blog Nov. 4 they were 250 signatures short of meeting their goal of 6,000 signatures.
The chapter needs 4,662 signatures to place the initiative on a ballot, according to the Jackson County Clerk's office.
The office said the group had not submitted signatures as of Nov. 21.
Jackson County Commissioner John Rachor said the group told him it has enough signatures and plans to ask the commission to hold a special election in March.
Rachor said he doesn't believe the petition merits a special election.
"I don't think this is one of those items that needs emergency action," he said.
Rachor said it would cost the county $135,000 to hold a special election in March. The cost to place the initiative on the May ballot is about $35,000, Rachor said.
Waiting until either the 2014 primary or general election to place the initiative on a ballot would dramatically reduce the county's cost, Rachor said.
Rachor said the county has several concerns about the proposal, including questions on how to enforce the ban and whether it violates Oregon's right-to-farm and federal antitrust laws.
The ban could place Jackson County growers at a competitive disadvantage, Rachor said.
"Let's assume we do have climate change and a GMO pear is developed in the future. We would not be allowed to grow a GMO pear here that could survive drought," Rachor said.
"If there is an issue with GMO crops," Rachor said, "the USDA would point that out."
Ban backers said costs of enforcing the ban would be covered by citations. But, Rachor said, if no violations are uncovered, the county would be stuck with the costs of enforcement activities.