Two Oregon Counties Ban GMO Plants After Historic Grassroots Campaign

Agribusiness giants spent $450,000 to try to defeat the measure

Photo Credit: GMO Free Jackson County

Two Oregon counties have banned genetically engineered plants in local ballot measures passed Tuesday, after a coalition of family farmers and local food activists ran a grassroots campaign that beat some of the nation’s largest biotechnology and corporate farming companies.

The measures passed in Jackson County and Josephine County in southwestern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, in votes where 55,000 voters said not to GMO. In Jackson County, where Ashland and Medford are located, the fight attracted more than $1.3 million in donations, including $455,000 from six biotech companies, including Monsanto and Syngenta.

“We fought the most powerful and influential chemical companies in the world and we won, Elise Higley, a Jackson County farmer with the anti-GMO group Our Family Farms Coalition, told The Oregonian on Tuesday night. Opponents, including the pro-agribusiness Farm Bureau, called the ban irrational, even though 66 percent of voters in Jackson County and 57 percent in Josephine County supported it. 

"Ideology defeated sound science and common sense," said Barry Bushue, Oregon Farm Bureau president and spokesman for Good Neighbor Farmers, the industry-sponsored group said in a news release. “While this election is over, this debate is not. We will continue to fight to protect the rights of all farmers to choose for themselves how they farm.”

The fight drew national attention because most local efforts to ban GMO seeds and plants have either been stopped by agribusiness lobbyists in state legislatures or in subsequent lawsuits filed by the biotech firms. In Oregon, these corporate interests pushed the Legislature to ban all local GMO ordinances last October, but Jackson County’s effort went ahead because it predated that action. Josephine County’s ballot measure came after that 2013 law took effect, raising the question of whether it will be upheld in court.  

As a result, both sides focused on the Jackson County measure because it was seen as the best chances for an enforceable GMO ban to pass in Oregon. Unlike GMO labeling efforts, which have been throw out by conservative federal judges for infringing on corporate speech rights—by supplanting their labeling—the ban on GMO seeds and plants is an untested legal area.  

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).