If voters approve, Jackson County would become the first in the state to ban growing genetically modified crops. A local farmers’ group has put a measure on the May ballot. The measure would apply to just one, mostly-rural county. But the campaign has attracted attention – and money – from around the state, and across the nation.
Neither the supporters of Measure 15-119 nor its opponents seem eager to make the campaign a debate about whether GMOs are harmful to people or the environment. For Elise Higley, it’s about saving small family farms.
“The people that are opposing genetically engineered crops here are the family farmers, and we’re saying, we’re at risk," she said. "If you allow genetically engineered crops to be grown in this valley, we will be out of business.”
Higley and her husband, Jeff, organically farm 113 acres in the Applegate Valley. She also heads Our Family Farms Coalition, the group supporting the measure. The threat, she says, is two-fold.
One is that pollen from GMOs will drift and cross-pollinate non-GMO crops. That could result in a harvest that can no longer be certified organic or could be rejected by customers.
Chris Hardy, a Jackson County seed farmer, says that risk is very real. Last year when Hardy found out that GMO beets were being grown in his area, the company that contracted to buy his seed crop said it would cancel the deal if the seeds were contaminated by GMOs.
“Our farm had to make the decision whether or not to continue to grow that crop out, to see it to its completion, and put months worth of management into that, not even knowing whether or not that crop was worth anything,” Hardy said.
Hardy, who’s one of the chief petitioners for Measure 15-119, says he tilled his chard crop under and planted something less likely to be contaminated. Last summer, the discovery of a few stray GMO wheat plants in eastern Oregon sent wheat prices tumbling, as Asian and European markets suspended shipments.
“Our customers do not want this technology. They do not want plants that produce its own pesticides," Hardy said. "What they want is food that has integrity.”
Supporters say the other major threat posed to small farmers is the possibility of being sued for patent infringement. GMO crops are the patent-protected intellectual property of their manufacturer. One such company, Monsanto, says it has never pursued legal action against a farmer whose non-GMO crop has accidentally picked up GMO pollen.
But a report last year from the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Center for Food Safety says Monsanto alone has gotten hundreds of millions dollars in confidential, out-of-court settlements with farmers.
Meanwhile, opponents of the anti-GMO measure are focusing on one key argument.
“The big concern is what it’s going to cost the county,” said John Watt, a political consultant and former Oregon state legislator. He’s the spokesperson for the group Good Neighbor Farmers.
“This measure will divert monies that are spent on existing services right now at a time we simply can’t afford to lose those services or even cut back on those services,” Watt said.
Watt adds he’s basing that on a report by Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan. Jordan estimated it could cost the county over $200,000 a year to administer the program — and possibly millions more for enforcement actions. Jordan also said it’s possible there could be no cost to the county at all. In a radio ad by Watt’s group, however, those nuances are glossed over.
“County officials say they will have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to enforce the ban, diverting tax money away from services we need, like public safety and libraries,” the ad states.
Supporters point to several California counties – Marin, Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Trinity — which have similar GMO bans already in place. There, officials say enforcement costs have been negligible, in large part because GMOs were never grown there.
But Mendocino County Agriculture Commissioner Chuck Morse says he’s not sure his county’s experience is applicable to Jackson County, where those crops already exist.
“It would be a complete different paradigm and scenario up there for enforcement folks if you already have an established industry,” said Morse.
The Swiss-based bio-tech firm Syngenta says it’s currently growing its GMO beets in about two dozen sites around the county.
This campaign is shaping up to be something of a David vs. Goliath contest. Good Neighbor Farmers has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars so far to defeat the measure, about half from out of state ag industry groups, and almost all from outside Jackson County. The group’s largest contributor —the Oregon Farm Bureau — has gotten money from Syngenta, Monsanto and CropLife America, not to mention industrialists Charles and David Koch. Good Neighbor Farmers has so far spent more than $110,000 on the high-powered Portland-based PR firm, G-Squared Strategies.
Meanwhile, Our Family Farm Coalition has raised over $112,000 to support the measure, nearly half of which came from the group GMO Free Jackson County. That $50,000 dollar contribution is the largest single donation of the campaign so far.
A new state law that prohibits counties from regulating GMOs specifically exempts Jackson County. A similar ballot measure is before voters in Josephine County, as well. Backers of the Josephine County measure are banking on that state law being stricken down in the courts.