OSU: ban will hamper research

Oregon State University plant breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher looks at jars of different hazelnut cultivars at his laboratory near Corvallis, Ore., in this file photo from 2013. Mehlenbacher and other OSU researchers say a Benton County ballot measure to prohibit genetically engineered organisms would restrict their work.

Shawn Mehlenbacher, the Oregon State University hazelnut breeder who developed varieties resistant to deadly Eastern Filbert Blight, says a Benton County ballot measure to prohibit genetically engineered organisms would restrict his research.

Joseph Beckman, an OSU biochemistry and biophysics professor, believes he is closing in on a treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the fatal and incurable nervous system disorder more commonly known at Lou Gehrig’s disease. He says the ballot measure would force him to close down his research or somehow move it off campus and out of Benton County.

An OSU evaluation of Measure 2-89, which is on the May 19 ballot in Benton County, says they aren’t alone. The university said the measure might effect 120 or more faculty and stop research projects that have attracted about $18.3 million in outside funding.

Backers of the measure strongly disagree, and describe the measure as protecting the local food system from “international food corporations whose profit motives limit what you eat and the quality of your life.”

Nonetheless, the Oregon State analysis says the measure would stop research on cancer, bioenergy, wood crops, agricultural diseases and any other work that involves genetically engineered material. The Benton County voters’ pamphlet says the measure requires all GE organisms in the county to be harvested, removed or destroyed within 90 days of the measure taking effect. The measure applies to corporations or governmental entities, according to the voters’ pamphlet.

Mehlenbacher, who is credited with saving Oregon’s $120 million hazelnut industry, said his current work uses traditional breeding methods and would not be prohibited under the measure. But research he has proposed — to verify which gene is the filbert blight gene – would not be allowed, he said. Mehlenbacher said he doesn’t plan to develop GMO hazelnuts, but the blight research requires using genetically engineered organisms.

He said the ballot measure is “extreme.”

“And to do it in the county where the state’s land grant university is located is even more extreme,” he said.

Beckman, director of OSU’s Environmental Health Sciences Center and a principal investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute on campus, tells an even starker story.

He and other international researchers are investigating a copper compound treatment that may extend the lives of ALS patients. Beckman uses mice and rats that are genetically modified with human genes that cause them to develop the disease.

Without treatment, the rodents die in four months. But treated rats and mice have survived for 18 months now, and continue to thrive.

“I basically stopped the disease with this compound,” Beckman said. He has prepared a research paper for publication and hopes to begin trials on human patients this summer.

The prospect of the measure passing and being told, “Oh, you have to get rid of it in 90 days” is a disappointing sign of anti-science thinking, Beckman said. Some people may see it as a way to “strike a blow at Monsanto” but haven’t thought through the consequences, he said.

“I’m a huge proponent of supporting small farms and diverse foods, I love the farmer’s market,” he said, “but it’s easy to get wrapped up in emotion.”

Moving the research project out of Benton County while maintaining the research animals in sterile conditions would cost perhaps $30,000 or $40,000, Beckman said.

“I would sue, the best I can,” he said. “Whether I can, as a state employee, I don’t know,” he said.

One of the measure’s chief backers says OSU’s analysis is incorrect. Harry MacCormack,founder of the organic Sunbow Farm, said the measure applies only to organisms that would enter the local food stream.

“What they’ve done is take out of context a line (in the ballot measure text) that says no GMOs are allowed in Benton County,” MacCormack said.

MacCormack, who worked 31 years at OSU’s English and theater departments, said the measure must be interpreted by the intent of its ballot title. “All this covers is GMOs that would interfere in the local food system,” he said.

He said Mehlenbacher, for example, could work with genetically engineered organisms in the lab, and use them to speed up breeding non-GMO hazelnuts with traditional methods. Beckman’s and other medical research using genetically engineered organisms could continue, he said.

The Oregon Legislature in 2013 passed a law that prohibits local jurisdictions from banning GMOs on their own. MacCormack and other backers of Measure 2-89 say a local food system ordinance would pre-empt the state law; others sharply disagree with that legal interpretation.

According to the voters’ pamphlet, the measure would establish a local food system right and a “right to seed heritage,” which would protect seeds from infection, infestation or drift from genetically engineered organisms. “Natural communities” such as soil, plants and water systems would be granted legal rights and would be named as plaintiffs in any legal action brought to enforce the right of natural communities to be free of GE organisms. Natural communities would have a legal right to be free from the patenting, licensing or ownership of their genes.

The measure is opposed by the county commissioners, the Benton County Farm Bureau, the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association, many local farmers and many OSU professors and researchers.

Three of them — Philip Mote, Brandon Trelstad and Kevin Ahern — filed a voters’ pamphlet statement calling the measure “an example of a laudable goal taking a significantly wrong turn” and one that “reaches well beyond what its proponents say it will do.”

In regards to GE safety, the three said, “it’s important that research is conducted in the controlled, contained settings provided by a research university.”

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