A proposal to increase restrictions on genetically engineered crops has been revived in the Oregon Legislature a month after a similar bill died in committee.
House Bill 3554 would allow the Oregon Department of Agriculture to establish “control areas” where biotech crops — even those deregulated by federal authorities — would be subject to additional rules, such as isolation distances.
Growers who fear cross-pollination from genetically modified organisms could petition ODA to create a “market production district” in which such crops would face similar regulations.
Farm suppliers would also have to report sales of biotech seeds to the agency.
The new bill is a compromise because state officials could choose whether to designate control areas or market production districts, said Ivan Maluski, policy director of Friends of Family Farmers, a group that supports stronger GMO regulation.
“It’s done in a way that gives ODA the authority without telling them what to do,” he said.
Under earlier legislation, which died in the House Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water in April, the agency would be required to establish control areas for biotech crops.
Clarifying ODA’s authority over GMOs is necessary because the agency currently believes it loses the power to regulate once they’re commercialized by USDA, Maluski said.
“Right now, they pretty much argue their hands are tied,” he said.
Opponents of the bill are disappointed that the control area concept has been resurrected, even though such designations aren’t mandatory under HB 3554.
“It might be scaled back in some respects, but none that are meaningful,” said Scott Dalhman, policy director of the Oregonians for Food and Shelter agribusiness group.
Subjecting biotech crops to control areas is a “draconian” idea that was previously rejected because it effectively allows some farmers to dictate what others can grow, Dahlman said.
Traditionally, farmers who signed contracts that guarantee price premiums in return for high seed purity were responsible for living up to those specifications themselves, he said.
Under HB 3554, growers can demand that the government dictate their neighbors’ farming practices to ensure the contract terms are met, he said.
Dahlman and other biotech proponents want lawmakers to pass House Bill 2509, which would create a mediation system overseen by ODA to resolve conflicts over genetically engineered crops.
Critics of GMOs, on the other hand, claim that a stronger statewide policy is necessary because lawmakers pre-empted most local governments from regulating such crops in 2013.
“There’s a lot of interest in the legislature following through on that promise,” Maluski said.