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To Ban Or Not To Ban: GMO Measure On Ballot In Benton County

GMO wheat is grown in Oregon.
GMO wheat is grown in Oregon.

The battle to prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, continues in Oregon. In the upcoming special election, Benton County voters will decide if a measure to ban GMO's is right for them. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert spoke with people on both sides of the issue and filed this report.

GMO wheat is grown in Oregon.
GMO wheat is grown in Oregon.

On the face of it, Measure 2-89 seeks to protect local food sources by banning the cultivation of genetically modified crops anywhere in the county. The measure also promotes saving heritage seeds and a sort of “We the People” right to self-governance.

Kings Valley resident Mary King is campaign manager for Yes on 2-89, which she calls the Local Food System Ordinance of Benton County. She says the measure was written to protect county residents from multi-national corporations which seek to profit off the fertile Willamette Valley.

King: “This measure is a community rights initiative. And what it says is that we the residents get to govern our own agriculture system; not the state and not the Federal government, but those of us living in the valley.”

Last year, Josephine and Jackson counties voted in similar measures. Enforcement of the GMO ban in Jackson has been stymied due to lawsuits brought by two alfalfa farmers claiming damages.

Yes on 2-89 Campaign supporters Mary King (l), Stephanie Hampton, and Corvallis City Counselor Joel Hirch
Credit Tiffany Eckert
Yes on 2-89 Campaign supporters Mary King (l), Stephanie Hampton, and Corvallis City Counselor Joel Hirch

Stephanie Hampton runs Benton Food Freedom. She says authors of 2-89 hope to mitigate challenges from farmers, big ag corporations and the state by including language like the “Rights of Natural Communities.”  

Hampton: “Our opposition has said that this is giving human rights to individual trees, which it is not. This is a new way of thinking about our environment, not as property to be plundered for profit. But as the basis of a healthy ecosystem and environment.”

The Yes on 2-89 coalition says the GMO ban would only pertain to the local food system. Their hand painted signs read “If it’s not food, it’s not affected!” But many can’t square that position with the measure’s language.

Oregon State University is a research institution in Corvallis. They conduct numerous studies and trials using genetically engineered organisms. Under state law, the university is barred from taking any position on ballot measures. But, they have evaluated the impact of Measure 2-89.

Steve Clark is OSU Vice President of Communications.

Clark: “The measure as written would prohibit this university from conducting research that is has conducted for dozens of years utilizing genetically engineered organisms.”

Clark says that research includes work on human and agricultural diseases and environmental clean-up methods. The school says the measure could impact 120 or more faculty and research valued at over $18 million dollars.

Dr. Mark Leid and his team in the OSU Pharmacology department are working on a non-surgical treatment for Craniosynostosis, a serious skull deformity. He has been working with the same colony of genetically modified mice for 12 years.

Dr. Mark Leid works conducts studies with genetically engineered mice at OSU.
Credit Tiffany Eckert
Dr. Mark Leid works conducts studies with genetically engineered mice at OSU.

Leid: “Certainly there’s been concern throughout the development of these techniques about genetic engineering and I think scientists in general have taken a fairly responsible approach to looking at the good and bad in that. But I’ve never heard of a voter initiated program that would eliminate research programs that have a positive effect, I think, on human health.”

Last year, Rebecca Tweed worked to defeat the *state initiative, (Measure 92) for GMO labeling. Now, she manages the coalition *against Measure 2-89. Tweed agrees the measure is complex but she says the reason to vote no is simple.

Tweed: "This is a poorly written ballot measure."

Tweed points to section 3(B), saying the biggest impact of the measure is the banning of "any use" of GMOs. She adds, if the measure passes, farmers would be required to remove GMO crops within 90 days.

No on 2-89 campaign sign
No on 2-89 campaign sign

Tweed:"You have families like the Crockers, they're the fourth generation of their farm right now, their entire livelihood, their employees, their family, everything relies on their ability to farm. 

Debbie Crocker farms 2000 acres in Monroe, including Round-up ready, GMO sugar beets for seed. She opposes 2-89 saying the measure was written for a few but affects many.

Both sides on the GMO issue have a long row to hoe. If Measure  2-89 fails, proponents say they will re-group and try again. If it passes, it will very likely be challenged in court.

Postnote: According to Oregon State University's Steve Clark, of their $1 billion research budget, about $1 million comes from corporations with GMO interests, including Monsanto.

Copyright 2015 KLCC

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked in a variety of media including television and daily print news. For KLCC, Tiffany reports on health care, social justice and local/regional news. She has won awards from Oregon Associated Press, PRNDI, and Education Writers Association.