State-Level 'Monsanto Protection Act' Passes in Oregon

Activists are focusing on statewide GMO regulations after a law passed blocking local communities from setting food and ag policies.

State-Level 'Monsanto Protection Act' Passes in Oregon

(Kevin Vanden/ Flickr)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Oregon food activists rejoiced upon the demise of a bill this July, because it would have blocked localities from making their own policies about genetically engineered seeds and other agricultural policies. But the bill, with the backing of agri-business giants like Monsanto and Sungenta, has resurfaced.

The measure was passed Wednesday after being re-introduced as part of a bipartisan-backed package of bills, SB 863, which was intended to address state spending, taxes and education on it's face. But it would also give the state the sole authority to regulate seeds and was debated in a special session last week.

Critics say Democrats compromised on their principles by voting for the bill, using the measure as a bargaining chip to bring Republicans to the table on tax and public pension reform.

“It is incredibly disappointing that the Oregon Legislature has voted today to take away the rights of Oregonians to establish local food and agriculture ordinances intended to protect the viability of local farms, food and agriculture,” the group Friends of Family Farmers wrote in a statment Wednesday.

The group called the legislation a clear giveaway to Monsanto, Syngenta and others, because it does nothing to protect Oregon farmers from the increasing risks of cross-contamination with genetically engineered  material.

Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, says he is assembling a task force to address genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops at the state level, and plans to introduce a bill in 2015 specifically addressing genetically modified crop issues.

That's small consolation to Friends of Family Farmers, who say time will tell whether the Governor will be able to stand up to “the powerful interests responsible for inserting SB 863 in the so-called ‘grand bargain.” The group expects agribusiness to obstruct, delay and oppose any changes that will keep their products away from farmers and consumers.

Residents of Jackson County, Ore., had been trying to force a vote on a bill designed to ban the planting of genetically engineered crops in the district—a law that could have served as a precedent for other counties throughout the state.  

“We believe this is an anti-democratic piece of legislation because it takes away the rights of people in Jackson County to vote on these issues, and takes away the rights of other local jurisdictions to make decisions about their own future as it relates to local agriculture and food,” Ivan Maluski, Policy Director for Friends of Family Farmers, said in April.

But while Wednesday’s ruling was a loss for those working to ban GMOs at the county level in Oregon, activists say they will work to regulate transgene crops at the state level.

“We’ll definitely be exploring statewide options,” Scott Bates of GMO-Free Oregon told Oregon Public Broadcasting this week. “It’s a little harder because you have to get the whole state on board as opposed to dealing with matters of county concern, but we’ll be chasing that for sure.”

But considering lawmakers were apparently influenced heavily by the lobbyist group Oregonians for Food and Shelter—which has been called a “front for the GMO, pesticide and aerial spray industries,” with board members from Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta—non-GMO activists may have an uphill battle in convincing them to regulate or ban GE crops.

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