Farmers hope to ban genetically modified crops



Supporters of a local ban on genetically modified crops filed signatures with the Jackson County clerk Wednesday in Medford, Ore., to put a measure on the county ballot.

Supporters carried signs and drove a tractor outside the Jackson County Courthouse before filing 6,710 signatures with the county clerk. To get on the ballot, 4,662 will have to be certified. Barring a special election, the next ballot it could get on would be May 2014.

The measure would ban anyone from raising genetically engineered plants in Jackson County, with exemptions for scientific research. It also calls for the county to conduct inspections and allows enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

Chief petitioner Brian Comnes, a retiree from Ashland, Ore., said they want to protect organic farmers whose crops could be contaminated by pollen from genetically engineered crops, such as sugar beets and alfalfa.

“If someone is growing GMO alfalfa next to your organic alfalfa, the whole burden is on you not to get cross-pollinated,” he said. “The guy who grows the GMO stuff doesn’t have to do a thing.”

Noting genetically modified canola and sugar beets have been an issue in the Willamette Valley, state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said he has drafted bills to require compensation for farmers who suffer losses from contamination by genetically modified crops, and to ensure that if a county enacts a ban, it would be able to enforce it.

“We have our Right to Farm Law in Oregon,” he said. “It’s a question, and I want to make sure we are on solid legal footing.”

Buckley added that he expected strong opposition from the genetically engineered crops industry.

Co-petitioner Chris Hardy, an Ashland organic farmer, said certified organic seeds grown in the Rogue Valley are sold all over the country through various cooperatives. Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulated sugar beets genetically modified to withstand the weed killer Roundup in July, they can be planted anywhere, and are grown all over the Rogue Valley, including a across the road from his farm.

“We’re pretty much surrounded here,” he said.

Jackson County Farm Bureau President Ron Bjork said he thinks most farmers in the county believe in coexistence and would oppose aban.

“This ballot measure they have, as far as I’m concerned, they should be talking about coexistence with the other farmers, and not trying to separate everybody,” he said. “We believe in coexistence, the county Farm Bureau does.”

Comnes said the owners of 90 farms, 230 businesses and four Granges in the area have signed a statement in support of the ban.

Organic seed producer Chuck Burr of Ashland said he had to destroy his chard seed crop after learning that genetically engineered sugar beets were growing near enough to have cross-pollinated with his chard.