GMO opponents can join Jackson County in defending ban

Local anti-GMO forces celebrated a Friday ruling allowing them to join Jackson County in defense of last year’s voter-passed ban on growing genetically engineered crops in the county.

Our Family Farms Coalition and others have said they question Jackson County’s knowledge of the issue and will to fight GMO proponents who are suing the county. Pro-GMO farmers say the new ordinance violates the state Right to Farm Act, which halts suits over perceived “nuisances” related to farming.

The ruling Friday allows Oshala Farm in the Applegate, Ashland farmer Christopher Hardy and two Portland-based environmental action groups, Our Family Farms Coalition and the Center For Food Safety, to join Jackson County as defendants against the suit filed by local farmers — Schultz Family Farms and James and Marilyn Frink — who grow GMO-alfalfa and claim the new ordinance would cost them $2 million each.

Some 120 GMO foes Wednesday packed District Court in Medford as both sides argued about the intervenors’ request. Now the main issue — the legality of the county’s new ban — moves forward in court.

Our Family Farms Coalition promised to “vigorously defend” the ordinance, using lawyers from the Center For Food Safety and Earthrise Law Center at Lewis and Clark Law School.

The plaintiffs Wednesday said anti-GMO forces had only political or ideological interests but no legally protectable material interest to defend, thus they lacked standing to be in court. However, Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke ruled that, in the interest of rapid resolution and access to courts, the law around intervenors should be liberally interpreted.

Clarke wrote that Hardy and Oshala Farm do have significant protectable interests because they are local farmers with “concrete agricultural and economic interests that will be just as impacted” by the outcome of the suit. Invalidation of the ordinance, Clarke adds, would impair their interests, as they can’t market seed or food with “transgenic contamination.”

Clarke tackled the question of whether Jackson County can provide adequate legal representation for the ordinance because it must represent all constituents, this in contrast to the more narrow and concrete economic interest of the anti-GMO intervenors. He noted the county lacks that economic interest in the law, so the intervenors should sit at the table.

Local farmer Elise Higley, director of OFFC, said in a statement, “Monsanto and the chemical giants have created a product (Roundup) they can't control. After the people expressed their will through the democratic process, they turned to the courts to protect their profits. They intimidate and bully with high-priced law firms, but we won't back down.”

“This is a big win for family farmers,” said Center For Food Safety attorney George Kimbrell. “The court has correctly recognized local farmers' right to protect the ordinance, farmers that championed the ordinance and are directly threatened by the lawsuit.”

Tom Buchele, with Earthrise Law Center, stated, "This is a good start to the case, but it’s not really surprising given the compelling agricultural and economic interests that farmers growing traditional crops have in seeing the ban on genetically engineered crops upheld and legally enforced."

The pro-GMO campaign spent nearly $1 million in last May’s primary election, but lost after capturing only a third of the vote. The campaign was sparked by Hardy three years ago after he found Syngenta GMO crops growing near his sugar beets.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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