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Why Rural Oregon Is a National Flashpoint in the Corporate GMO Food Wars

Oregon’s Rogue Valley will vote in May on banning GMO plants.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Our Family Farms Coalition

 
 
 
 

Danny Jordan doesn’t look like a hitman for corporate agriculture. But in mid-March, the linebacker-sized county administrator in southwest Oregon delivered his analysis of the costs of a proposed countywide ballot measure banning genetically modified organisms to Jackson County’s governing Board of Commissioners.

It was a performance worthy of a political Oscar. Jordan punctuated his hour-long presentation with endless disclaimers that he wasn’t a GMO expert and his figures were best guesses. But then he declared that Measure 115-19 on May’s ballot would cost his cash-strapped county $260,000 to set up in its first year, and could cost up to $1.7 million to clean up every 20 acres of tainted soil after that. It could require police seize marijuana plants to test whether growers were using a gene-altering spray, he said, which made headlines as Oregon voters are expected to legalize pot this fall. And it even could require the sheriff to send a GMO swat team to Home Depot to remove fresh flowers.

“How do you minimize contamination if we are removing carnations from Home Depot,” Jordan said in full seriousness, telling the stone-faced commissioners that the flowers can come from GMO seeds. “I don’t know that it can’t contaminate something. It’s hard for me to give us a cost estimate until we have someone present us with a case.” 

Jordan’s parade of purported horribles was seized by the measure’s opponents for their first wave of exaggeration-filled political ads. Banning GMO plants would impose cuts on the police and library budgets, they began, before making other distorted claims of government overreach. Needless to say, Jordan’s figures, which he inflated by adding items such as the $40,000 cost of the already-scheduled May election and $90,000 for unspecified administrative charges, were about as trustworthy as the name of the opposition PAC behind the ads: Good Neighbor Farmers.

That PAC, which had $536,000 in the bank as of April 15, according to campaign finance records, compared to about $31,000 for the measure’s backers, is hardly homegrown. Six agribusiness and biotech giants creating and selling GMO products—Bayer, BASF, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta— donated more than $450,000 to it in 2014. The GMO-heavy sugar beet and corn industries were the next biggest givers, topping $90,000, with a half-dozen state Farm Bureau chapters from the Great Plains also chipping in.

“Oh God, it’s such garbage information,” said Chris Hardy, reacting to Jordan’s analysis and the negative ads based on it. “It’s misinformation to confuse voters.”

Hardy, who grows herbs, vegetables and seeds, helped draft the proposed GMO ban. He said that the attorneys who wrote it paid careful attention to legal precedents to ensure it would be low-impact and low-cost. It’s similar to a GMO ban adopted in Marin County, Calif., in 2004, where Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Stefan Parnay said this week that the law has cost very little. It’s also based on an existing Jackson County ordinance requiring fruit orchard owners to get rid of pests that could spread and harm other trees. In most cases, the county sends a notice to a landowner as a last resort, which is exactly the opposite of the opposition’s shrill messaging.

“The measure will divert taxpayer dollars away from public safety, libraries, extension programs and other county services,” their website declared, echoing their broadcast ads. “Farmers would be subject to complaints, inspections and legal fees, even if they do not grow GMO crops… Finally, the measure could also prohibit certain ornamental flowers, nursery plants, lawn seed and even some strains of medical marijuana.”

In short, southwestern Oregon’s Rogue Valley has become the latest frontier in Big Ag’s brazen efforts to extinguish any citizen uprising that rejects biotech-based farming.