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UPDATE: Bill In Congress Might Overturn Southern Oregon GMO Crop Bans

Lindsay Eyink

UPDATED Thursday 11:47am

Voters in Jackson and Josephine Counties last year approved county-wide bans on the cultivation of genetically-modified crops. Backers of those measures fear a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives today would roll back those bans – as well as scores of other GMO-related measures across the country.

Supporters of Jackson County’s proposed GMO crop ban reacted ecstatically on Election Night when it was announced Measure 15-119 had passed by a two-to-one margin. Organic farmer and campaign organizer Elise Higley said the vote was a strong statement of local values.

Elise Higley: “I’m just so grateful that the community stepped up in supporting local farmers and showing that they really care about their food security and want to protect family farmers against the threats of genetically engineered pollen and crops.”

That was in May, 2014. Since then the measure has survived a key legal challenge, but is still under appeal. Now, Higley is trying to stop a bill in Congress she says would undo all that work.

Elise Higley: “It’s basically taking all state and local control from any GE issues away.”

The bill – sponsored by Republican Representative Mike Pompeo from Kansas – would set up a national, voluntary labeling system for GMO-free foods, much like the USDA certified organic label.

More controversially, it would also pre-empt states and local governments from establishing mandatory labeling laws for genetically-engineered foods, such as the ballot measures that failed in California, Washington and Oregon over the past few years. It would also roll back existing laws. George Kimbrell says the Pompeo bill threatens GMO measures across the country.

George Kimbrell: “We have found, in our view, over 130 laws in 43 states that would potentially be negated, pre-empted, by this bill.”

Kimbrell is senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety in Portland. The group was active on the county GMO crops bans, as well as last year’s failed state-wide GMO labeling measure. He says crop bans in counties in California, Washington and other states are also vulnerable. Kimbrell sees the hand of biotech corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta in the proposed legislation.

Kimbrell: “It’s been put together by chemical companies in order to overturn the democratic processes in Jackson County, in the state of Vermont and all across the country, really, where folks have put in place protections for their communities and their farmers addressing the impacts of genetically-engineered crops.”

But Gail Greenman, with the Oregon Farm Bureau, says the bill would bring much-needed clarity and simplicity to the regulation of GMO labeling.

Greenman: “It would provide a uniform, consistent and standard program for everybody.”

Greenman says the bill is meant to head off a patchwork of GMO labeling measures arising around the country and unify them under a federal standard. She also says the bill is solely about GMO labeling, and would have no impact on the cultivation bans in southern Oregon and elsewhere.

Greenman: “There have been many rumors that it would affect a cultivation ban and that is simply not the case. HR 15-99 does not do that.”

The bill does have language preempting state or local GMO regulations involving “food in interstate commerce.”

Greenman and other supporters of the bill say that leaves out crop bans such as those in Jackson and Josephine Counties.

But George Kimbrell, at the Center for Food Safety, calls that a disingenuous parsing of the bill’s language. He notes another section of the bill already pre-empts local labeling laws.

Kimbrell: They wouldn’t include this pre-emption provision, which would be superfluous if it only had to do with labeling. It has to have some intended function beyond that."

A previous version of the Pompeo bill failed to get traction last session. This time it passed handily out of the House Agriculture Committee and, after a three-and-a-half hour floor debate, passed the House 275 to 150. The bill will now go the U.S. Senate for consideration.

Copyright 2015 Jefferson Public Radio

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