Bill seeks reversal of Oregon GMO preemption

Critics of GMO crops are proposing legislation that would turn back Oregon's preemption on local government regulation of genetically engineered crops.

SALEM — Biotech critics are calling on Oregon lawmakers to overturn a prohibition against local government restrictions on genetically engineered crops because statewide regulations haven’t been enacted.

In 2013, the Oregon Legislature passed a law that preempted cities and counties from setting their own rules over seeds, which blocked most local ordinances banning genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Groups that opposed the preemption bill say state inaction since then has justified the passage of House Bill 2469, which would carve out an exemption allowing local GMO regulations.

“Oregon farmers can’t wait another four years to protect themselves from this harm,” said Amy van Saun, a legal fellow at the Center for Food Safety nonprofit group.

Van Saun said measures are needed to prevent cross-pollination of conventional and organic crops with biotech genes, which threatens markets for those farmers. The federal government doesn’t regulate GMO crops once they’ve been approved for commercial use.

“We’re probably going to see even more lax regulation,” van Saun said.

Oregon’s seed preemption law doesn’t apply to Jackson County, which was already set to vote on a GMO ban ballot initiative when the state legislation passed.

Voters approved the Jackson County ordinance, creating a “GMO-free seed sanctuary” where seed crops can be produced without the threat of cross-pollination from biotech varieties, said Elise Higley, director of the Our Family Farms Coalition, which supported the GMO ban.

“We’re in this unique economic opportunity,” she said.

Supporters of HB 2469 haven’t given up on statewide GMO regulations but they hope the bill will provide local control over biotech crops until the Oregon Department of Agriculture or lawmakers decide to take action, said Ivan Maluski, policy director of the Friends of Family Farmers nonprofit.

“We have no expectation the state of Oregon will move forward on these types of policies,” he said.

Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agribusiness group that supported the preemption bill, is disappointed that biotech critics are still trying to regulate what crops farmers are allowed to plant, said Scott Dahlman, its policy director.

Cities and counties aren’t equipped to regulate crop production, which is the province of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, he said.

The ODA hasn’t determined specific rules are necessary for GMOs, which the federal government deregulates after determining they pose no greater risk than conventional crops, Dahlman said.

Lawmakers never committed to statewide regulations when passing the pre-emption bill, he said. “There were no promises I was aware of at the time.”

Dahlman noted that the seed preemption bill passed in 2013 not only protects GMOs from a patchwork of local regulations, but also precludes such rules for other crops that may become unpopular in the future.

Many of the same lawmakers who voted in favor of the preemption bill four years ago still hold office, so Dahlman said he’s hopeful they won’t support HB 2469.

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