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Opinions differ on constitutionality of genetically engineered crop bills

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By MITCH LIES



Capital Press



SALEM -- Oregon has the authority to impose state regulations on the production and labeling of genetically engineered crops, according to a preliminary opinion from Oregon Legislative Counsel.



Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, opened the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing March 28 by announcing the counsel's opinion.



But in an interview with the Capital Press, Portland attorney John DiLorenzo said the opinion is flawed.



"I'm not surprised that the people who wrote the bill would defend it," DiLorenzo said. But, he said: "I think there is an excellent argument that (the bills) are unconstitutional."



Whether the state can legally impose requirements to label food with GE ingredients and whether counties and the state can ban growing GE crops are among the issues lawmakers are considering as they debate the merits of several bills.



* House Bill 2319 allows the Oregon Department of Agriculture to impose safeguards on crops to prevent the spread of GE materials.



* HB2715 authorizes counties to establish control areas for commodities containing GE materials.



* HB3290 prohibits growing GE alfalfa in Oregon.



* HB2532 makes foods that contain or are produced using GE genetically material subject to labeling requirements.



DiLorenzo said the bills regulating GE crop production violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by imposing too many impediments to interstate commerce. The clause gives Congress the authority to regulate commerce among states.



HB2532 violates the First Amendment by compelling speech, he said.



According to decisions by the Supreme Court and circuit courts, "mere curiosity," DiLorenzo said, "is not enough to compel a person to speak."



It has to be health or safety concerns to compel labeling, or speech, on food product labels, DiLorenzo said. "And there is not a modicum of evidence" that shows GE foods are unsafe, he said.



Witt said that to date the Legislative Counsel opinion is preliminary.



"When that opinion is formalized in writing, we will be sharing it with all of the committee and the public," he said.



The House committee is scheduled to conduct a public hearing and work session April 2 on HB2319, HB2715 and HB2736.



HB2736 exempts a farmer from liability for inadvertent acquisition or use of GE plants or seeds.



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