SALEM, OR, April 12, 2017 - Counties and other local government bodies in Oregon could create GMO-free zones under legislation introduced in the state House and Senate.

The goal is to prevent cross-contamination of organic and non-GMO crops, said Rep. Pam Marsh. The Democrat represents Ashland and southern Jackson County, including the fertile Applegate Valley, where farmers “are exploiting a growing local, national and even global demand for non-GMO seeds and crops,” Marsh told the state House’s agriculture committee at a recent hearing on H.B. 2469.

A companion bill was introduced March 22 in the state Senate, and a hearing is scheduled for today, April 12, in that body’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

“Markets are getting stronger for organic and non-GMO, both nationally and internationally,” Marsh told Agri-Pulse. However, especially in the windy Applegate Valley, she said it’s difficult to grow conventional and non-GMO or organic crops side by side.

The state passed legislation in 2013 pre-empting local regulations over seed; only Jackson County’s non-GMO ordinance was allowed to remain, because it was already on the ballot when the state measure was approved.

GMO-free zones have been approved in other counties, most notably in California, where Sonoma County voters easily approved a ballot measure in November affecting unincorporated areas of the county. Sonoma joined Humboldt, Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity counties in enacting GMO bans, creating a 13,734-square-mile area where GMO seeds cannot be used.

And Boulder County, Colorado, is moving ahead with implementing a ban on the planting of genetically engineered corn and sugarbeets on county lands and open space, following a 2-1 vote by county commissioners in December. The policy adopted by the county includes a five-year transition period.

At the hearing on the Oregon House bill, which Marsh introduced with Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, supporters and opponents were equally passionate. Fourth-generation Benton County farmer Timothy Winn, whose farm has produced sugarbeet seed for more than 50 years, said counties should not be given the authority to restrict GMO crop production.

The fears of those who support GMO crop bans, he said, “cannot be addressed by any non-physical boundary, such as a county line,” Winn said. Birds, mammals and wind all can carry plant material for miles, he said.  “If a true exclusion within a county is to be realized, it will be necessary to impose a buffer within the boundaries of each adjoining county of several miles. The assertion that counties could effectively address this type of crop issue is absurd. Passage of HB 2469 would result in a mess of inter-county conflicts and probably a rampage of lawsuits.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau was blunt: The legislation could result in “a patchwork of 36 different county regulations and over 400 city regulations on seed.” OFB said the 2013 pre-emption law should be left alone.

Oregon wheat growers also opposed the bill. “When problems develop between neighbors, we believe they should be resolved between the neighbors, not in the legislature or at the local ballot box,” said Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

Although there is currently no commercially available genetically engineered wheat, Rowe said, “we are fine with that because our export markets, and many of our local markets, are not currently receptive to GE or GMO wheat.” Nevertheless, “we are convinced that biotechnology and genetic engineering techniques are an important part of our future.”

Other groups opposed to the legislation include the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, and the Oregon Seed Association (OSA). OSA advocated for “a reasonable threshold of tolerance for each biotech trait so that a zero tolerance is not forced upon the industry” and supported the concept of “coexistence” of GMO and non-GMO growers put forth by USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

On the other side of the issue were farmers like Mary Alionis, who has grown certified organic crops in Josephine County, where voters passed a non-GMO ordinance that cannot be implemented because of the state law. “Included in my seed crop plan for this coming season is beet seed and corn seed,” Alionis said. “These two crops are at great risk for GMO contamination from neighboring crops, and, in fact, in prior years GMO corn and beet crops have been grown on nearby properties upwind of my farm.”

The Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association, many of whose members produce organic seed, said a “one-size-fits-all” approach would not work in Oregon because of its diverse “geography, climate and population.”

With the legislature due to adjourn in early July, the legislation’s chances of passage this year are probably slim. Marsh said she has not spoken with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Brian Clem, D-Salem, and so does not know his plans for the bill. (Clem’s office did not return a call seeking comment.) While acknowledging that gaining approval for the bill is “an uphill struggle,” Marsh said she is laying the groundwork for the future.

“I’m optimistic that over time, people will see the economic development benefits of allowing local government to make this decision,” she said.