Story by Kyra Buckley
Photo Courtesy of Parker Knight
On October 2, the Oregon Legislature, in a special session, passed controversial Senate Bill 863, an updated version of Senate Bill 633—also known as Oregon’s Monsanto Protection Act.
The bill states “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 reserved to state.” This effectively prevents Oregon counties from individually regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, according to the Oregonian.
Earlier this year the member-funded coalition Oregonians for Food and Shelter (OFS) announced that they would be “working in the legislature to pass a state GMO preemption bill in the 2013 session” to keep local governments from regulating GMOs. The OFS Board of Directors includes members from Monsanto Company, Syngenta Crop Protection, and DuPont—all leading companies in GMO and Pesticide research and sales.
OFS made this announcement shortly following the news that Jackson County, located in southwest Oregon, would have a measure to ban GMOs on their May ballot.
“Oregonians for Food and Shelter made this their top priority—not shockingly—to stop [Jackson County],” Ivan Maluski, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers says.
“And this is a very powerful group…they typically don’t even testify on bills, they just work behind the scenes.”
Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF) is a grassroots organization in Oregon that promotes socially responsible agriculture, and helps unite and support farmers and food advocates.
After the announcement from the OFS, Senate Bill 633 was brought to the legislature—and it had two Democrats as co-sponsors. After one public hearing, one amendment, and no response to those who opposed SB 633, the bill narrowly passed the Oregon Senate in late April.
“[OFS] didn’t make it about genetically engineered crops and foods publicly. We had to educate [the legislators] that’s what this is really about,” Maluski says.
On its way to a vote in the House, SB 633 got tied up in committee and was effectively stalled. The bill died when the legislative session ended in July, but opponents of SB 633 expected it to turn up again in February, 2014, when the next session would begin.
“Then all of a sudden the Governor starts talking about this special session,” Maluski says.
A special session of the Oregon Legislature was called for September 30, 2013, in order to settle issues regarding education funding, public-employee pensions, and tax relief for small businesses, according to the State of Oregon. Five bills were introduced during this session, including SB 863. Together, the set of bills were dubbed the “Grand Bargain,” as legislators supporting SB 863 were unwilling to pass the remaining four without it.
“Apparently what happened in their negotiation was that Republicans said we need this GMO preemption bill…and the Governor and the leadership agreed to it,” Maluski says.
The “Grand Bargain” nearly fell apart the weekend of September 28th, sparking fear that there would not be enough votes to push the complicated package of bills through.
During this intense weekend of negotiations, supporters of SB 863 demanded an “emergency clause” that required immediate implementation of the bill. This clause was included in the final text of the bill, and according to Maluski, bars voters from referring the bill to the ballot.
It was the goal of the OFS to halt current efforts in Lane and Benton counties to put GMO related legislation on the ballot—however, the issue of Jackson County still remains.
The key difference between SB 863 and its predecessor, is that it included an exemption for any ordinance that had qualified for the ballot before January—and will be voted on May 20th, 2014, Maluski explains. Jackson County is the only county that this exemption applies to, as it had already gathered enough signatures and sent a measure banning GMO crops in their county to the ballot before SB 863 passed in the special session.
Maluski describes the situation in Jackson County as a cliffhanger—no one has a concrete prediction of what will happen. While outside interests are pouring money and resources into Jackson County to defeat the GMO ban, concerned citizens and farmers also are seeing a surge in activism and interest. The vote in May could go either way.
“[Jackson County] have a very strong measure that would ban GMOs in the county,” Maluski says.
“I can tell you that Monsanto and those groups are going to put a lot of money—money that people have never seen be spent on a campaign—in Jackson County.”