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Bill gives local governments green light to regulate biotech crops


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Proposed legislation could give local governments the authority to regulate bioengineered crops.SALEM — Local government authority over genetically engineered crops is being reconsidered by Oregon lawmakers roughly three years after they prohibited most city and county seed restrictions.

Critics of biotechnology claim that lawmakers haven’t enacted meaningful policies for genetic engineering since adopting a 2013 law pre-empting local governments from setting their own seed rules.

The pre-emption bill was included in a broader legislative package that included public employee retirement system reforms that the Oregon Supreme Court later invalidated.

Proponents of House Bill 4122, which would repeal statewide pre-emption specifically for genetically engineered crops, claim local governments should be permitted to prevent cross-pollination between organic, conventional and biotech cultivars.

“In an ideal world, farmers will work together, but in reality, people are stubborn and do as they please,” said Jared Watters, a Jackson County farmer, during a Feb. 9 hearing before the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness.

“Transgenic contamination” is recognized as an economic threat to organic and conventional producers who sell into markets that don’t accept biotech traits, according to supporters of H.B. 4122.

While opponents of the bill claim that genetic engineering is best regulated at the state level, supports of H.B. 4122 claim that local governments are in the best position to understand how farmers in their area are affected by biotech crops and restrictions on them.

“You don’t have to deal with any of that. This bill puts that decision with the local government,” said Elise Higley, director of Our Family Farms Coalition, which supports stronger regulation of biotech crops.

Physical barriers, geographic distances and staggered plantings can prevent cross-pollination among conventional crop varieties and work just as well with biotech cultivars, according to opponents of H.B. 4122.

“Farmers need to work that out among themselves, not by voters at the ballot box deciding what can grow on their own property,” said Scott Dahlman, policy director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an industry group that opposes the bill.

Lawmakers passed a bill last year that allows farmers of potentially conflicting crops to seek mediation, which the Oregon Department of Agriculture is now in the process of “fleshing out,” said Greg Loberg, manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Co. and president of the Oregon Seed Association.

H.B. 4122, by contrast, is meant to give preferential treatment to non-biotech crops, he said. “It’s not about co-existence. It’s about exclusion.”

Supporters of the bill say they’re not opposed to mediation, but claim it’s not enough to guard against cross-pollination or compensate for the lack of regulation by the state and federal governments.

However, the idea that rules for biotech crops would vary across county lines is one of the main arguments against H.B. 4122.

“Cities and counties are not equipped to micromanage which crops can and cannot be grown in the State of Oregon,” said Anna Scharf, whose family farms in the Willamette Valley.

Another proposal recently considered by the committee, House Bill 4041, would effectively have reversed statewide pre-emption entirely, not just for biotech crops but for all seeds.

However, that bill will not receive further hearings and would have to be resurrected in a future legislative session, said Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, who chairs the committee.

H.B. 4041 was written so broadly that it could have applied to non-biotech crops, including grass seed, said Marie Bowers Stagg, whose family farms in Lane and Linn counties

Crop decisions are based on soil conditions, market demand and available equipment but should not be complicated by government interference, she said during a recent hearing on the bill.

“We already have enough risks in our day-to-day life,” Bowers Stagg said.

Mateusz Perkowski is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.