After an uncontroversial start, legislation that would require mediation for disputes over biotech crops in Oregon is now facing opposition from critics of genetic engineering.
House Bill 2509, which would direct the Oregon Department of Agriculture to mediate conflicts over genetically modified organisms, didn’t initially meet with objections and passed the House by an overwhelming margin.
The bill arose from a work group convened by Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, that evaluated a range of GMO proposals.
During a May 20 legislative hearing, Clem said he’s surprised by the recent surge of antagonism toward HB 2509, which emerged from the concerns of GMO critics who worried that biotech farmers wouldn’t agree to mediation.
“This came from the anti-GMO community,” he said. “This was designed to be helpful for people worried about being interfered with by GMOs.”
Friends of Family Farmers, a group that favors stronger GMO regulation, participated in the work group negotiations and credited the bill with providing an incentive for mediation during a work session last month.
Now that HB 2509 is before the Senate, however, the nonprofit group and other GMO critics are asking lawmakers to reject the proposal because they say farmers who are harmed by biotech cross-pollination should not be forced into mediation.
“I strikes us that mediation should be a choice farmers make, not a mandated situation,” said Ivan Maluski, policy director of Friends of Family Farmers, during the recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
If a dispute over genetically engineered crops occurs between farmers, the bill calls for ODA to provide mediation to seek a coexistence solution. If a grower refuses mediation and later loses a lawsuit in the dispute, he’d be required to pay the opposing party’s legal costs.
While Friends of Family Farmers believes mediation may be useful in some circumstances, the group has decided to oppose the bill because mandatory mediation could impose a financial burden on small growers.
The mediation requirement may delay a timely court decision when a farmer faces market rejection of his crop due to cross-pollination, the group claims.
Our Family Farms Coalition, which successfully campaigned for a GMO ban in Jackson County, argues that HB 2509 would hinder the ability of organic and conventional growers to enforce that prohibition.
The group argues that small farmers would effectively be blocked from seeking a “quick legal action to prevent contamination of their crop” due to fears of paying astronomical attorney fees.
“This bill would prevent that as a practical matter,” said Kellie Barnes, a representative for the group.
The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit involved in prominent legal battles over GMOs, alleges that ODA can’t be trusted to oversee the mediation program because the agency has served as the “mouthpiece of the agricultural biotechnology industry.”
Since the mediation requirement lacks any limit on duration or expense, ODA could use it as an obstacle for farmers who need a fast legal remedy to their dispute, the group says.
Scott Dahlman, policy director of the Oregonians for Food and Shelter agribusiness group, said he’s disappointed by the hostility toward HB 2509 after the work group tried to establish a middle ground.
The bill was intended to shed light on how many biotech conflicts actually exist in Oregon and encourage compromises that would be difficult to reach in court, he said.
“It might be as simple as communicating your planting schedule with your neighbor and planting at different times,” Dahlman said.