Two counties in the U.S. state of Oregon voted in favour of banning genetically engineering crops. By doing so, they are taking a stand against Swiss agricultural giant Syngenta, which grows genetically modified sugar beets in the region. John Dyer reports from Boston.
Oregon farmers have taken on one of the giants in the global agricultural industry. Switzerland’s Syngenta, the main competitor to US-giant Monsanto, is no longer allowed to grow genetically modified crops in two rural Oregon counties. The local ban was voted on in recent referendums in Jackson County and neighbouring Josephine County.
“If we can no longer cultivate or grow any GE crop there, then we wouldn’t do it,” said Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart in an interview with The Oregonian newspaper. “Whatever the provisions are, of course, we would abide by the law.”
The Basel-based multinational corporation grows genetically modified sugar beets in southern Oregon’s Rogue River Valley that are resistant to Roundup weed killer. Local farmers have long feared the beets would cross-pollinate with their crops, tainting them with artificially produced DNA.
Two-year long campaign
Two years ago, local farmers in Jackson County began a campaign to allow voters to ban GMO crops. Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto and other agribusinesses spent around 1 million dollars to defeat the campaign, around three times as much as its proponents.
On the 20th of May, 66 per cent of the county’s 120,000 voters approved the measure. In neighbouring Josephine County, a similar measure passed with around 58 per cent of the vote.
“We fought the most powerful and influential chemical companies in the world and we won,” rejoiced Jackson County farmer Elise Higley. Others took a more confrontational route: Last June vandals destroyed 6,500 sugar beet plants in Syngenta’s local fields.
For Chuck Burr, president of the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association, the vote proves without a doubt that Syngenta’s crops aren’t welcome in Jackson County. “The voters here have many generations of fruit and vegetable growing, so they’re among the most educated voters,” said Burr. “The opposition spent a million dollars and couldn’t convince the people.” Burr expects that the ban will help local farmers attract new business and make Jackson and Josephine counties among the most valuable seed-growing regions in the entire country.
The Oregon Farm Bureau sees matters somewhat different. President Barry Bushue said that he and other critics of the measure would work to show that GMO crops are not dangerous. “Regrettably ideology defeated sound science and common sense in Jackson County,” he said. “While this election is over, this debate is not. We will continue to fight to protect the rights of all farmers to choose for themselves how they farm.”
Governor wants consistent laws
Last year, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber signed a law prohibiting local governments from banning GMO crops. The legislation made an exception for Jackson County because its ballot measure was already approved for a vote, but state law likely trumps Josephine County’s ban on GMO crops. The Democratic Kitzhaber said he wants state and federal laws to regulate GMOs, not a patchwork of local laws.
Local governments in California, Hawaii and Washington have also banned GMO crops. But at the same time, voters in 2012 rejected ballot measures in California and Washington that would have required companies to label GMO foods. During a recent march against GMOs in downtown Portland, protesters said they would support forcing companies to label GMO ingredients in foods sold in Oregon.
The Jackson County ban on GMOs will take effect in 12 months. Local officials have estimated that enforcing the ban will cost around 219,000 dollars each year.
Photo credit: David Hawkins-Weeks/Creative Commons