GMO Food

Anti-GMO Bills Fail in Oregon

This failure in such a blue state shows the limits of the anti-GMO movement.


Stop GMO sign
LloydTheVoid / Pixabay

The anti-GMO movement has taken a beating in Oregon, of all places, when the legislature there killed two bills that would have limited the use of genetically modified crops in the state.

In a state that has nurtured the movement against science in agriculture, government overreach is responsible for the Senate agricultural committee killing SB 1037, which would have allowed Oregon's counties to pass local bans on the use of genetically modified crops. A House companion bill met a similar fate back in March.

The Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) came out strongly against the bill saying, "counties have neither the technical expertise nor the ability" to enforce GMO regulations, and that a state solution was preferred.

Barry Bushue, President of the Oregon Farm Bureau, told Reason that "Oregon folks have always been more liberal, but still also hostile to government overreach." And having local governments determine which legal crops farmers are allowed to plant he said definitely counted as government overreach.

The failure of the bills is a rare defeat for the anti-GMO movement in Oregon, a haven for organic farmers and agricultural activists. SB 1037 failed despite the sponsorship of 14 state legislators and all that political activism.

Portland—the state's biggest city—is famous for its long-running (and decidedly long-winded) defense of everything "natural", giving the city not just non-fluoridated water and vegan strip clubs, but also a heavy skepticism of GM foodstuffs.

Also skeptical of GMOs are more conservative rural Oregonians—many of whom are organic farmers in their own right—who see an economic as well as environmental threat from genetically modified crops.

Indeed, the largely rural and agricultural Jackson and Josephine counties became two of the few localities in the nation to prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified crops, when they passed anti-GMO labelling initiatives back in 2014.

Just as Jackson and Josephine County initiative campaigns were beginning to gain traction, the Oregon legislature passed a state level pre-emption of local GMO regulation. The 2013 law excluded the Jackson County GMO ban as it had already qualified for the ballot by the time the law was drafted, but did prevent the implementation of Josephine County's ban which passed in 2014 with 58 percent of the vote.

Proponents of lifting the state-level preemption on local GMO bans have cast the issue as one of local control. Amy Van Saun—a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety— told Reason "there's an interest definitely for people to try and protect their county."

"We have one seed sanctuary," she, referring to Josephine County, "but even though voters voted for it, we can't enforce this."

Undercutting Van Saun's argument for county control has come from the counties themselves. And it hasn't been helped a rather ambivalent attitude of many in the one county where a GMO ban remains in effect.

Jackson County Farm Bureau President Ron Bjork told The Fence Post in 2016, "We don't grow many GMO crops here. So we haven't really felt much of an impact from the ban. There isn't a lot of regulation or enforcement of the law either, and you can't tell if alfalfa is GMO or not without testing it, so nothing has really changed."

Given the awkward divide in American agriculture between counties where GMO crops are crucial, and counties where they are almost irrelevant, local bans have been slow to materialize.

Van Saun's organization helps write these types of restrictions. She Reason that there are about 100 state and local level ordinances that touch on GMOs, but she is only aware of several counties in California that have standing bans.

Some six counties in California have passed local bans of GMO cultivation, as has one in Washington state.

The island of Maui in Hawaii also had a GMO cultivation ban on the books, but it was struck down by the 9th circuit court as a violation of state law.

And so far the bans that have stuck have been largely symbolic.

Renee Pinel, president and CEO of Western Plant Health Association, said in a 2016 interview of California's bans, "Any county GMO ban that has been passed has only been passed in non-agricultural counties, or in counties where there are no GMO trait crops grown."

So while there is general opposition to GMO crops in more liberal states, outright bans will likely be exercises in political theater rather than substantive agricultural policy change.

Anything more requires state and local governments to impose heavy costs on their farmers, something they have so far proven reluctant to do.