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Daily News Blog

02
Jun

Federal Judge Upholds Ban on GE Crops in Oregon County

(Beyond Pesticides, June 2, 2015) A federal judge released a ruling Friday rejecting a request by two alfalfa farms to overturn the ban on GE crops in Jackson County, Oregon. In his decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke found the ban on GE crops is not preempted by the state’s Right to Farm Act, thereby allowing the ordinance to become effective on June 5. The ordinance, which bans the cultivation, production and distribution of GE crops within the county passed overwhelmingly last May with 66 percent support. This decision is an important victory for farmers of organic and non-genetically engineered crops, who constantly struggle with the threat of GE contamination.

“We have always felt this was a strong case,” explained Tom Buchele, attorney with Earthrise Law Center, “but it was very encouraging to get such a strong and well-written opinion that affirms what we have argued since the beginning: communities have the ability under the Right to Farm Act to protect traditional agricultural crops from contamination from GMOs.”

Magistrate Judge Clarke rejected the legal challenge by two GE alfalfa growers, Schulz Family Farms and James and Marilyn Frink, who claimed that the Jackson County GE crop ban violated Oregon’s Right to Farm Act.   Instead, the court held that Jackson County’s ban was allowed under the law since it was intended to “protect against damage to commercial agriculture products, and therefore it falls into the exception to the Right to Farm Act.” The Court also relied on the fact that Oregon’s Legislature clearly intended to exempt the Jackson County ban when it adopted Senate Bill 863, the state preemption law, which was aimed at GE crops during the 2013 special legislative session.

“We are elated and could not have hoped for a better outcome,” said Elise Higley, a Jackson County farmer and the Director of Our Family Farms Coalition.  “Family farmers should not have to live in fear that our farms will be contaminated by genetically engineered crops. Monsanto can spend all the money they want fighting us at the ballot box and in the courts, but in the end we cannot let them and the other chemical corporations behind GMOs threaten the foundation of our farms and our food supply.”

Opponents of the ordinance had raised over $830,000 to advertise against the measure, with over 97% of the funding coming in from outside of the county, including over $450,000 from biotech giant Monsanto and five other corporations to defeat the initiative. For comparison, the previous county spending record on a ballot initiative was $111,000.

“This important decision protects the farmers of Jackson County, but also will stand as a precedent for the rights of farmers and communities across the United States to create GMO-free zones to protect the future of our food,” said George Kimbrell, attorney with the Center for Food Safety and counsel in the case.

However, the battle is not over yet. According to Ms. Higley, her group expects that plaintiffs may file an appeal to challenge the decision. And, while Judge Clarke dismissed the farmers’ arguments regarding the Right to Farm Act as protecting their GE alfalfa crops from being destroyed, their claim seeking $4.2 million in compensation from Jackson County remains alive in the case.

The fact of the matter stands, though, that organic and non-GE farmers stand to lose the most when it comes to damages inflicted upon their crops through genetic drift. A survey released last year finds that a third of U.S. organic farmers experienced GE contamination in their fields due to the nearby use of GE crops, while over half of these growers have had loads of grain rejected because of unwitting GE contamination. These rejections can lead to big income losses for farmers, with a  median cost of approximately $2,500 per year, according to the  survey. Additionally,  several farmers report annual losses of over $20,000 due to the need to establish buffer zones, while limit the threat of contamination from their neighbors by taking contiguous farmland out of production. There have also been several high profile cases of GE contaminating organic farms. In May of 2013, USDA announced that unapproved GE wheat was found growing in an Oregon wheat field. In September of 2013, USDA refused to take action or investigate after it was confirmed that GE alfalfa contaminated non-GE alfalfa in Washington State, claiming that contamination is a “commercial issue” and should be addressed by the marketplace and not the government.

Jackson County farmer Chris Hardy, who first proposed and was the chief petitioner behind the Jackson County ban on GE crops, says the decision was a vindication.   “No farmer should ever have to tear up their crops like myself and others did for fear they had been contaminated by GMO pollen. Family farmers know well that GMO contamination could quickly destroy a family farm, but it was so encouraging to have a federal court support farmers’ right to defend ourselves against GMOs.”

Beyond Pesticides continues to support the efforts of all farmers, counties, states, and countries to protect themselves against the unwanted invasion of GE crops and the risks that they bring to the environment and health. Please visit our Genetic Engineering webpage to learn more.

Sources: Capital Press, Our Family Farms Coalition, and Center for Food Safety

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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