Monday, June 01, 2015

Judge Upholds Jackson County Ban on GMO Crops

It started two years ago when farmers in Jackson County, a largely agricultural region in Southwestern Oregon, found out that for the past decade, genetically modified (GM or GMO) sugar beets had been grown for seed in the county. Moreover, the locations of the 40 fields were being kept secret by the growers. The problem for some local farmers was that since these sugar beets were being grown for seed, this meant that the beets were being allowed to flower and develop pollen.

The pollen from the sugar beets (left), which one EU study showed can be carried on the wind as far as five miles from the source, could also be picked up and carried by birds, insects, cars and trucks for much greater distances. The pollen from the sugar beets has the potential to cross-pollinate with any member of that family, including table beets. Contamination means that crops can't be sold by organic growers and, even for traditional (non-GMO) farmers, it makes their crops undesirable to a public increasingly opposed to buying what they consider tainted food.

This led to 150 Jackson County farmers, who felt their crops were endangered by contamination from genetically engineered (GE) crops, to initiate what became known as the Jackson County Genetically Modified Organism Ban, Measure 15-119. The measure passed with the support of 66% of county voters despite almost $1 million spent to defeat it by agricultural companies that produce and promote the use of GE seed, including Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and other chemical corporations.

The measure was quickly subjected to a court challenge by two farmers in the county, backed by those same chemical corporations, who grew GE "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, citing Oregon's Right to Farm Act which "protects growers from court decisions based on customary noises, smells, dust, or other nuisances associated with farming. It also limits local governments, and special districts from administratively declaring certain farm and forest products to be nuisances or trespasses."

The suit, which sought to overturn the measure or award damages in the amount of $4.2 million, was dismissed on Friday, May 29, by federal magistrate judge Mark D. Clarke, who ruled that the Jackson County ban was allowed under the Right to Farm Act. According to Judge Clarke's opinion, the act was intended to "protect against damage to commercial agriculture products, and therefore it falls into the exception to the Right to Farm Act."

Furthermore, Judge Clarke wrote, "Farmers have always been able to bring claims against other farmers for practices that cause actionable damage to their commercial agriculture products. The [Jackson County] Ordinance, by contrast, is enacted pursuant to section 30.935 [of state law], and serves to prevent such damage before it happens."

Jackson County farmer Chris Hardy was quoted in a press release as saying,  "No farmer should ever have to tear up their crops like myself and others did for fear they had been contaminated by GMO pollen. Family farmers know well that GMO contamination could quickly destroy a family farm, but it was so encouraging to have a federal court support farmers’ right to defend ourselves against GMOs."

Get the full text of Judge Clarke's decision.

Sources for this story included the Center for Food Safety, Ballotpedia's explanation of the measure and an article on Alternet by Steven Rosenfeld. Photo at top from a video produced by Our Family Farms Coalition.

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