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Federal Bill Could Trump Oregon GMO Bans

Supporters of Jackson County’s proposed genetically-engineered crops ban were ecstatic when it was announced Measure 15-119 had passed by a two-to-one margin.

Organic farmer and campaign organizer Elise Higley said the vote was a strong statement of local values.

“I’m just so grateful that the community stepped up in supporting local farmers and showing that they really care about their food security and want to protect family farmers against the threats of genetically engineered pollen and crops,” she said.

That was in May 2014. Since then, the measure has survived a key legal challenge, but is still under appeal. Now, Higley is trying to stop a bill in Congress she said would undo all that work.

“It’s basically taking all state and local control from any GE issues away,” Higley said.

The bill – sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan. – would set up a national voluntary labeling system for GMO-free foods, much like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "certified organic" label. More controversially, it could also pre-empt state and local governments from establishing mandatory labeling laws for genetically-engineered foods, such as the ballot measures that failed in California, Washington and Oregon over the past few years. It would also roll back existing laws.

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety in Portland, said the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015" threatens GMO measures across the country.

"We have found, in our view, over 130 laws in 43 states that would potentially be negated, pre-empted, by this bill,” Kimbrell said.

The Center for Food Safety was active on the county GMO crops bans, as well as last year’s failed state-wide GMO labeling measure.

Kimbrell said crop bans in counties in California, Washington and other states are also vulnerable. He said he sees the hand of biotech corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta in the proposed legislation.

“It’s been put together by chemical companies in order to overturn the democratic processes in Jackson County, in the state of Vermont and all across the country, really," Kimbrell said, "where folks have put in place protections for their communities and their farmers addressing the impacts of genetically-engineered crops.”

But Gail Greenman of the Oregon Farm Bureau said the bill would bring much-needed clarity and simplicity to the regulation of GMO labeling.

“It would provide a uniform, consistent and standard program for everybody,” Greenman said.

Greenman said the bill is meant to head off a patchwork of GMO labeling measures arising around the country and unify them under a federal standard. She also said the bill is solely about GMO labeling, and would have no impact on the cultivation bans in southern Oregon and elsewhere.

“There have been many rumors that it would affect a cultivation ban and that is simply not the case. HR 15-99 does not do that,” Greenman said.

The bill does have language preempting state or local GMO regulations involving “food in interstate commerce.” Greenman and other supporters of the bill say that leaves out crop bans such as those in Jackson and Josephine counties.

But Kimbrell calls that a disingenuous parsing of the bill’s language. He notes another section of the bill already pre-empts local labeling laws.

"They wouldn’t include this pre-emption provision, which would be superfluous if it only had to do with labeling. It has to have some intended function beyond that," he said.

A previous version of the Pompeo bill failed to get traction last session. This time it passed handily out of the House Agriculture Committee and, after a three-and-a-half hour floor debate, passed the House 275 to 150.

The bill will now go the Senate for consideration.

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Opponents of Jackson County's recently passed GMO measure say it could open the door for unintended lawsuits.
Liam Moriarty / Jefferson Public Radio /
Opponents of Jackson County's recently passed GMO measure say it could open the door for unintended lawsuits.
<p>Organic wheat in Jackson county, Oregon. Voters in the county chose to ban GMO crops in 2014</p>

Amelia Templeton


Organic wheat in Jackson county, Oregon. Voters in the county chose to ban GMO crops in 2014

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.