Oregon counties ban genetically modified crops

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Residents of southern Oregon's agriculture-heavy Rogue Valley have voted to ban genetically modified crops from the area, setting up the next stage of a fight that has gained widespread attention.

Companies that genetically engineer seeds — including biotech giants Sygenta, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer — spent about $900,000 on their failed campaign.

Those that wanted to do away with so-called GMOs — including organic farmers and environmentally friendly soap-maker Dr. Bronner's — spent about $400,000.

Here are some key questions and answers about the topic:

— What are GMOs, and are they safe?

Genetically modified foods are plants or animals that have had genes copied from other plants or animals inserted into their DNA in a laboratory. This is frequently done to make them resistant to pests and herbicides.

No mainstream science has shown GMOs to be unsafe. But opponents say not enough testing has been done.

— Are genetically modified crops legal in the U.S., and do we know where they are grown?

Yes, they are legal. Examples include most of the nation's soybeans, and papaya in Hawaii. GMO crops were planted on about 169 million U.S. acres in 2013, about half the total land used for crops, according to the USDA.

Companies generally aren't required to report where the fields are located. Opponents want more transparency about where such crops are grown and which foods contain them.

— What happened in southern Oregon?

Organic farmers in the region have tapped a demand for local produce free of pesticides and wanted to prevent their crops from what they consider contamination by cross pollination from nearby GMO crops.

They tried to reach a deal with Syngenta to keep modified sugar beets away from organics but pursued a ballot measure when the talks broke down.

Bans in Josephine and Jackson counties passed Tuesday.

Based on recent Oregon legislation, Jackson County's ban, which attracted national attention and money, will have the force of law, but Josephine County's ban appears headed for a court battle.

— Are there any other GMO bans in the U.S.?

At least a dozen places around the nation have adopted GMO bans or limits, including areas of California, Hawaii, Maine and Washington state. Unlike Oregon's Rogue Valley, most of those counties did not have genetically modified crops growing before the bans.

— What about GMO labeling laws?

The U.S. doesn't require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have all passed labeling laws, although they don't take effect immediately.

There are currently 85 bills on GMO labeling pending in 30 states, as well as dueling bills in Congress.

Labeling ballot measures previously failed in California and Washington state. Activists in Oregon, Colorado and in Arizona are currently gathering signatures to put GMO labeling measures on their states' ballots.

— What happens next in southern Oregon?

Those who grow genetically modified crops in Jackson or Josephine have a year to harvest or destroy them, according to the ballot measures. Those who ignore the bans face financial penalties.

Observers and officials expect both bans to end up in court.

If judges hold up the GMO prohibition, it could drive Syngenta out of the Rogue Valley where it grows seed for sugar beets resistant to the weed killer Roundup. Syngenta did not return calls for comment.

Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said, "We believe growers should be able to plant the seeds of their own choice, whether those seeds are conventional, organic or have biotech traits." But she added that Monsanto would not sell genetically modified seeds for planting in jurisdictions where their cultivation has been banned.