Jackson County not enforcing GMO ban

Jackson County is not enforcing a voter-approved ban on genetically modified crops, but supporters of the ban say it still is having positive economic and environmental impacts.

People were able to begin filing complaints about crops with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in June, but the county has yet to receive any complaints, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

Two-thirds of county voters approved a ban on GMO crops in May 2014.

Even if the county did receive complaints, it is not enforcing the ban because of pending litigation, Jordan said.

In May, a federal judge ruled the GMO ban was legal under Oregon law.

However, a claim by farmers that they could lose $4.2 million because of the ban still is pending. Jackson County won't enforce the ban while that potentially costly issue remains unresolved.

Bruce Schultz of Gold Hill and James and Marilyn Frink of Sams Valley filed the lawsuit against the county, with Schultz saying he would lose more than $2.2 million if he had to remove his alfalfa — which is genetically engineered to withstand Roundup herbicide applications — and plant a less-lucrative grain crop for the four years it would take to eliminate traces of GMO alfalfa.

The Frinks said tearing out their alfalfa would cost them $2 million. No other crop would be as profitable on their land and, after waiting four years to replant, they would have lost customers and would be too old to start anew, the lawsuit says.

Shannon Armstrong, a Portland-based attorney for Schultz and the Frinks, declined to say whether the farmers were still growing GMO alfalfa on their land.

Although the countywide GMO ban is not being enforced, local farmer Elise Higley of the pro-ban group Our Family Farms Coalition said it is still having an impact.

"The ban is in place and it is in effect," she said. "It is illegal to grow GMO crops in the county."

Our Family Farms Coalition members have not noticed any new GMO crops going in, and some farmers appear to be removing their GMO plants, Higley said.

"No one we know of has any new plantings since the ban was voted in," she said. "Several farmers including myself have seen farmland fields tilled up since the ban."

Higley noted Syngenta has stopped growing controversial GMO sugar beets in the county.

The Swiss biotechnology firm confirmed it has stopped growing test plots of the beets, which it grew on leased land.

In 2013, thousands of GMO beet plants in at least two separate fields were uprooted during overnight acts of vandalism.

Farmers had voiced fears the plants could contaminate their GMO-free crops, rendering them unsaleable. GMO crops don't comply with organic industry standards, and many countries have banned imports of GMO crops.

The group GMO-Free Jackson County, which spearheaded efforts to get the GMO ban measure on the ballot, condemned the sugar-beet vandalism at that time, saying the ballot box was the best place for people to voice their views on GMO crops.

Higley said since voters adopted the GMO ban, local seed growers have been contacted by large seed companies about the potential for local farms to produce GMO-free seed. Such contracts could prove lucrative for local farms.

"We're feeling really positive about the economic opportunities coming our way," she said.

Higley said Our Family Farms Coalition wants to help fellow farmers as they transition away from GMO crops.

"We want to see all Rogue Valley farms prosper for generations to come," she said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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