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Peter Courtney’s vote —not the evil end of the world

Legislation described by those rejecting it as “the GMO” bill and “the Monsanto Protection Act,” recently passed the Oregon Senate.

SB633 requires that “regulation of agricultural seed, flower seed, nursery seed and vegetable seed and products of agricultural seed, flower seed, nursery seed and vegetable seed” be done by the state.

Opponents say the bill is dangerous to Oregon’s organic and seed agriculture because of the way seed materials spread and crops cross-pollinate miles beyond the field in which they grow, and for this reason, according to Ashland’s Brian Comnes, “email and phone opposition to SB633 was exponentially the loudest issue of the year [for regulators,] bar none.”

The objections centered on the fact that since Oregon already allows genetically modified crops (GMOs) the bill’s passage might result in a state where no seed crops would any longer be non-GMO, and no seeds or food crops would any longer be organic.

SB633 would pre-empt a ballot measure from Jackson County, in southern Oregon, which was written by organic farmers.  This ballot measure was scheduled for a vote on the May 2014 ballot.  It wanted to establish a countywide ban on the planting of GMO crops.  Its intention was to protect the Rogue Valley, an organic, non-GMO and heritage seed Mecca from what organic farmers call “the risk of permanent genetic pollution.”

“What they are doing [in passing SB633] is in fundamental violation of We The People’s right to govern ourselves,” according to Paul Cienfuegos, regional leader of the Community Right’s movement.

The issue is whether local communities, or the state – should control which crops are grown in a specific area in Oregon.  Those who favor the bill believe that counties simply have neither the resources nor the knowledge to regulate agriculture.  They say that imposing new county requirements on farmers means that Oregon farmers have to add a local law from the many they follow from federal and state levels when they are already overburdened.

The Senate vote on SB633 went generally along party lines, with opponents being all Democrats and all but three supporters being Republicans.  One surprise was that Peter Courtney, (D – Salem) Senate President, voted in favor of the bill – several calls to Courtney for comment were not returned.

The bill is now in Rules committee in the House.  It’s not sure if it will come to a vote this session.

Representative Brian Clem (D-Salem,) a farmer himself says he doesn’t think the bill “is necessarily as either as good as people who want it think it is, or as bad as those who hate it think it is.”   Some counties say it’s needed, he says, “because they don’t have the skills to regulate crops and they don’t have the capacity to defend themselves against lawsuits around crops.”

But even if the bill passes, the challenge will be to solve disputes over what crop is grown where.  Clem points to farmers in Jackson County destroying crops, and Monsanto’s accidental – or clumsy – release of GMO matter.

These kinds of conflicts, Clem says, are not going away.  He hopes to address them with a mandatory mediation bill he’s crafting.  Calling SB 633, “not the evil end of the world, and not the savior, either,” Clem believes Oregon’s focus will soon have to be on solving the “giant mess that 633 isn’t going to be able to resolve.”

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