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.

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. 

“We’re at a fork in the road,” said Hardy, who’s not naïve about the stakes in this fight. “We either have to chose multinational corporations as the future of agriculture, or we have to show up in May and choose Measure 15-119 as the future of agriculture in the region. They are non-compatible.”

Capitalism Versus Democracy

Oregon’s Jackson County, with the small cities of Medford and Ashland, verdant Rogue Valley and a total population of 204,000, is on agribusiness’ radar for a simple reason. If the GMO plant ban wins, it could become a crack in the legal armor protecting its profits.

Across the nation, there have been many ballot initiatives and legislation to require food makers using GMO-based ingredients to say so in their labeling. Most of these measures have not been approved by voters after massive, industry-led disinformation campaigns, such as in Washington and California in 2013. Labeling laws passed by state legislatures, such as in Vermont over hormones injected into cows to increase milk yields, have been thrown out by conservative federal judges who have ruled that such pro-consumer labeling infringes on corporate speech rights. That is the same legal reasoning that has kept graphic images off cigarette boxes. But 15-119 takes a different tack by trying to ban the GMO plants.

Jackson County’s measure was drafted, Hardy said, because the region was at a fork in the road. On one side, it was increasingly growing organic produce and plants. On the other side was the introduction of GMO sugar beets on several dozen parcels leased to Syngenta, a Swiss company that has been planting the seeds in the fall, letting them flower in the spring, and uprooting the young plants for resale across the U.S., said Brian Comnes, who co-wrote the GMO ban with Hardy. “Syngenta has said those plants are worth $55 million to them,” he said. “They charge $160 per plant.” 

The problem is organic crops can be imperiled by GMO pollen. That’s because a plant’s pollen—GMO or not—is carried by the wind and can taint other plant’s genetics. A well-known case occurred last year in Oregon with GMO wheat. That’s also the fear with sugar beets, Hardy said, which are related to chard, a leafy organic vegetable. A handful of local organic growers won’t even plant chard varieties any more, he said, fearing they would no longer be certified as organic.

“It effects us all,” Hardy said. “You have to know what it is to have pollen from a multi-national corporation trespass across your land, and then have your market broker call you up and say that he can’t sell it—they’d just tested it and they don’t want to deal with you anymore. There already is a chilling effect here in the Rogue Valley with our non-GMO farmers… Mother Nature will do what Mother Nature does. You can’t stop it.”   

Big Ag and biotech giants know how farmers like Hardy feel and have been very busy trying to stop their no-GMO efforts. Last year, industry lobbyists were almost entirely successful in ensuring that Oregon did not follow California and Washington with anti-GMO laws. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 863, an “emergency” bill, which barred every local government jurisdictions from enacting GMO laws. The explanation given was such an important issue needed to be regulated on a statewide basis. But Jackson County’s no-GMO ordinance predated S.B. 863, so it could still be put to a vote. On the other hand, similar but newer anti-GMO measures in a handful of other counties are in legal limbo as a result of S.B. 863, such as in nearby Lake County.

The industry-led disinformation campaign against the proposed GMO plant ban has been as predictable as it is cynical. Beyond all the fiscal fear-mongering, it’s worth noting who would really be affected by a GMO ban—besides the several dozen parcels leased to Syngenta for its beet seedlings.

This is where the full bluster, hyperbole, misinformation and stakes come into clear view. According to the most recent U.S. Census reports, there are slightly under 2,000 farms in Jackson County. Most are backyard hobby operations. Only 274 earn more than $20,000 a year; 120 earn more than $50,000; 22 earn more than $500,000, Census reported.

Hardy said he has been talking to farmers for years about GMOs and that he only knows of four local farmers who admit to using GMO seeds—not leasing land. One grows corn, which is not a big local crop. One grows sugar beets, he said, and two others grow alfalfa grass. That means out of the 120 farmers making $50,000 through farming, only 3.3 percent appear to be impacted by the proposed ban. If you add those farms to the four-dozen leased-land sugar-beet operations, that makes an estimated 52 property owners out of county’s 1,976 farm parcels (according to the Census), or 2.6 percent.

“I don’t think people know that,” Hardy said, speaking of how few people are making money from GMO plants in Jackson County. “How would people know that? There are no statistics on it. You know who would know? Monsanto, Syngenta, that’s who. They make you sign contracts when they buy their seeds. They won’t tell you.”

But if less than 4 percent of Jackson County’s farms are using GMO seeds, the political coalition defending GMOs has 94 percent of the available cash to use for political ads in the final weeks of the election, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State as of April 15. The opponents have $536,000 in cash on hand, while the proponents have about $31,000—a 17-to-1 ratio. This disparity perfectly illustrates how big money can distort elections, especially at the local level, giving more power and a bigger microphone to a much smaller but far wealthier faction.

Deeper Ironies

Like any well-financed political campaign, the opposition is seasoned enough to have a local face. Lee Bradshaw is a cattle rancher who opposes the GMO measure and helped create the Good Neighbor Farmers PAC. When reached by phone, he confirmed that the only local GMO crops are sugar beets and alfalfa—where seeds are modified to make the hay grass resistant to a common pesticide.

Bradshaw complained about the proposed ordinance’s costs, citing County Administrator Danny Jordan’s report as the authoritative source. “We laid off 12 or 13 sheriffs, cut 4-H, shut our libraries,” he said, saying the county could not afford to police GMO plants.

Actually, voters in May will be considering two other ballot measures, one that would create a dedicated funding stream for libraries and another that would do the same for agricultural education. There’s also a hot county sheriff’s race—which underscores why Jordan’s inclusion of the election’s cost in his analysis of the GMO measure’s costs was not exactly honest. Moreover, Hardy said those measure’s authors support banning GMO plants, and have said that the GMO ordinance would not impact their future funding.

Bradshaw also did not choose to see the apparent contradiction that GMO pollen was already infringing on others’ land—even as he said his top issue was property rights.

“It’s kind of being pushed on us,” he said. “It’s an invasion of property rights. My family has been here since 1856. My biggest deal is private property rights. I don’t even farm. I raise livestock. I think the next thing will be crop controls.”

Bradshaw wouldn’t say what political messaging was coming before the May 20vote. But it will likely be a mix of television and radio ads, and mailers and newspaper inserts. City dwellers will likely be told they can’t buy lawn seeds, footnoted by Jordan’s report. Rural residents will hear about potential land grabs and legal invasions, if the “Myth vs. Fact” page on the opposition’s website is a guide.   

The proponents will be using their grassroots network of neighbor-to-neighbor contacts, leaving brochures on doors and other low-budget messaging. “We can continue to do what we are doing,” Hardy said, “which is asking what the future of agriculture and the future of food looks like in the Rogue Valley.” 

It’s also an open question if the county’s voters will hear about the experience of other counties that have banned GMO plants and found that doing so hasn’t cost very much. That’s been the case in both Marin and Santa Cruz counties, according to senior agricultural officials in those California locales.

“Most of our ranchers and other producers are sustainably minded; three-quarters of the dairies are organic,” said Stefan Parnay, Marin’s Deputy Agricultural Commissioner. “We’re fortunate in that sense. In Marin County, because of how it farms, it hasn’t been an issue for us.”

Santa Cruz County Agriculture Commissioner Mary Lou Nicoletti said her county grows mostly fruits and vegetables, not GMO plants such as canola, corn, “or any of the crops that are grown with genetically modified organisms.”

“To be honest, there’s a lot of [biotech] research going on with fruits and vegetables, but nothing that I know of is being marketed,” she said. “Right now, we aren’t having any cost to enforce this. Five to 10 years from now, that could be different.” 

Turning Point

As Hardy said, Jackson County is at a fork in the road, with one path pointing to organic farming and smaller-scale production, and another pointing to the GMO-based door that big ag and biotech corporations want to push open. That’s why hundreds of thousands of dollars have poured into the county to fight the GMO plant ban. That’s why the county’s conservative Board of Commissioners generated an official report they knew would delight big industry and fuel its exaggeration- and distortion-filled political ads. 

“It’s a complete misinformation campaign,” Hardy said. “There is no way for the voters to stay informed in what the truth is. They’re flooding the airwaves with all kinds of misinformation. You’ve got to do your own homework on it.”

But there still may be a ray of hope for the no-GMO side. According to Chris Walker, the county clerk and election director, the public is paying attention and the political money being spent is not the only local record that may be broken. She expects voter turnout will exceed 50 percent, compared to past primaries where it has hovered around 37 percent.

In other words, Jackson County’s voters might just take a hard look at all the corporate-sponsored propaganda and side with most local farmers, saying no to GMO.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).