This second piece in the series looks at the issue of genetically modified organisms and ALEC’s connection to the effort to legalize them in Oregon. ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agricultural Task Force was instrumental in drafting several bills that became law in Oregon that prevented opposition to farming practices and later, prevented restrictions on agribusinesses. Specifically, this segment examines the fight in Southern Oregon between those who support the growing and labeling of GMOs and those who don’t.
- ALEC and GMOs in Oregon 15:33
DM – Jackson County, Oregon is a quiet place. On any given day, the traffic from I-5 and the sound of tractors in the distance might be all you hear for hours. The county’s known for farming, with fields and orchards covering thousands of acres in the Rogue River and Applegate valleys.
SS – Jackson County recently became ground zero for an effort to ban the production of genetically-modified foods. Opposing them were some of the biggest corporations in the world, and politicians aligned with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are generally defined as agricultural products which contain the genes of another organism, typically bacteria that make it resistant to commercial pesticides or pest insects. GMOs have become a contentious issue, as some claim they cause adverse health effects, and that their propagation has negative impacts on not only farmland ecology, but on the surrounding community as well. A handful of localities in the US, and many countries worldwide, have banned them, but the transgenic agriculture industry, and the chemical producers it partners with, form an enormously powerful lobby that has fought tooth and nail against bans or labeling of products which contain GMOs.
DM – In Jackson County, this became reality in late February of 2012, when farmer Chris Hardy discovered the presence of GMO sugar beets growing adjacent to land he was leasing.
Chris Hardy –
“Genetically engineered sugar beets were being grown just down the road, across the street virtually from where we farm. It was right, virtually on the city limits of Ashland, right out the back of the Ashland middle school and a couple elementary schools. And I knew of others in the community and right down the street you know literally blocks away that were saving seeds on beets and chard. So I knew that this would likely be putting transgenic pollen into not only in local farmers seed stock but our own farm’s seed”.
DM – Hardy soon found that Syngenta, a Swiss agribusiness and agrichemical company, had been growing GMO beets in the area, unbeknownst to non-GMO farmers, for almost a decade.
GMO beets can pollinate non-GMO beets, as well as Swiss chard, and non-GMO foods are highly-regulated; their supposed purity is their selling point, so the revelation had impacts for those growing non-GMO vegetables. Eli Demitru, a Jackson County resident who campaigned for the GMO ban, said that genetic contamination from GMO pollen could also lead to non-GMO farmers being sued.
Eli Dimitru –
“All the genetically engineered crops are if a farmer or landowner is going to plant them on their land,they have to sign a contract with the owner of the patent, whether it’s Monsanto or Syngenta or DuPont in order to get the seeds to plant them. The corporation that they signed that contract with owns that crop. They own the rights to the crop. You can’t take the seeds from that crop and replant them. Its a huge contract that very tightly regulates the farmer and what they can do and so because they have patent rights over the seed. So if that genetic material from the seed that they own patents for crosses into another farmer’s field, the court has said that company still owns the patent rights to that genetic material even though it’s invaded another farmer’s crop. Those companies have actually sued small farmers for growing their patented crops when their patented crops invaded the small farmers.”
SS – Syngenta’s sugar beets were regulated by the US Department of Agriculture, and required a buffer with a four-mile radius be between their crops and non-GMO farms. Initially, the farmers and Syngenta tried to form a seed association to map where GMO and non-GMO farms could co-exist. But the Rogue Valley, where Ashland sits, is only eight-miles across, making negotiations difficult. Syngenta, not wanting to divulge where it was growing, walked out in early June 2013. Days later anonymous persons dug up a beet field full of Syngenta GMO beets in the middle of the night, an act which the FBI called “economic sabotage.” 6,500 GMO beets plants, which were about to flower, were destroyed.
DM – The Jackson farmers decided to respond by putting an initiative on the ballot, banning the growth of GMO crops. The measure, 15-119 (Fifteen-one-nineteen), now pits a coalition of farmers against state agricultural interests, sugar companies, and international agribusiness. Then the Big 6 came in.
The Big 6 are six major agribusiness and agrichemical firms: Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta. They are multibillion-dollar corporations who have each spent tens of millions of dollars in political contributions and lobbying. Together, they poured money into successful campaigns to defeat GMO labeling in California and Washington state. Monsanto would contribute $180,000 to the effort to stop Jackson 15-119. Dupont spent $125,000. Spending by GMO Free Jackson County would have easily broken records for political spending on a ballot initiative in the county. They raised over $400,000. In all, the opposition to the GMO ban raised almost a million dollars, with the Big 6 raising more than GMO Free Jackson County entirely, $450,000. A glut of expensive political ads overtook the airways.
[ad audio 1]
[ad audio 2]
[ad audio 3]
[ad audio 4]
SS – Gared Watters is a Jackson County farmer who has grown conventionally, and leased plots to grow GMO. He supported the ban, and said that the history of the Big 6 inspired others to approve it, too.
Gared Watters –
“For a lot of the people, the reason they got involved was just the history of the companies that are pushing GMOs is not a good history. I mean, look at Vietnam with Agent Orange, DDT, we’ve got lots of farmers down here dying from DDT.”
SS – Watters said that his break with GMO farming was for economic reasons, and that his opposition to GMO crops is due to irresponsible growing practices by GMO farmers which can place neighboring farmers crops at risk.
Gared Watters –
“I’m not an environmentalist by any means but I do agree with environmental accountability where if I destroy something that I should be accountable for it whether it was intentional or accidental. The term organic is I think something that I think should not be applied at all when it’s GMO non-GMO. Because GMO can contaminate organic or conventional but nothing can contaminate GMO.”
DM – GMOs also had a large impact on the state economy earlier in 2013; an anonymous farmer in northeastern Oregon had found an illegal patch of Round-up herbicide-resistant wheat patented by Monsanto, growing in the middle of his field of conventional wheat field. GMO wheat had been grown for test trials in the region in 1994 and again in 2005, but was never approved or mass-produced, so no one knew how Round-up-ready wheat came to be growing in the middle of a field of conventional wheat years later. In response, Asian markets with GMO bans canceled purchases worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and Oregon’s ability to export wheat internationally was in doubt.
SS – Scott Dahlman is the executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a pro-GMO and pesticide lobbying group with representatives from Monsanto and Syngenta on its board, along with state and national farming organizations. Oregonians for Food and Shelter campaigned against the ban. Dahlman contends the ban will hurt local farmers.
Scott Dahlman –
“Our members actual farmers down there either use the technology or want to use the technology and felt that was at risk, which obviously it was and now many of them are in a very bad situation.
DM – May 20th, Jackson County voters went to the polls and resoundingly banned GMOs with 66% approval, becoming one of just a handful of jurisdictions in the US where GMO crops are banned.
Josephine County, Jackson’s neighbor to the west, also passed a ban on May 20th, but now they’re most likely unable to enforce it.
SS – Both Jackson and Josephine Counties passed their GMO bans via voter-created and approved referendums, but Jackson County’s GMO ban made the ballot before an Oregon law came into effect, which would preempt it. 2013’s Senate Bill 863 preempts localities from regulating agricultural seeds, or any produce which would grow from it. When it was initially introduced, as Senate Bill 633, its critics called it the “Monsanto Protection Act,” and said it was a specific response to the two anti-GMO initiatives. Dalhman doesn’t disagree.
Scott Dahlman –
“It was a response to what we saw going on in a lot of areas. It hadn’t really been considered before that local entities would start trying regulate what kind of agricultural seed a farmer could plant. And so I think Jackson country brought some attention to that. But it was a much broader issue for our members. As a statewide organization representing members all over the state, the potential for a patchwork of regulations was very very concerning. ”
SS – SB 863 was passed in a special session primarily concerned with limiting public employee pension costs, and funding education, where lawmakers were informed by Governor John Kitzhaber that he would sign all the bills they could compromise on, or none. The result was last year’s so-called “grand bargain”.
SS – ALEC is an organization that brings conservative state legislators and some of the most powerful corporations in the world together for closed-door sessions where they work together to create industry-friendly model legislation. These bills, once approved by ALEC, are then taken back to state houses by member legislators, and introduced. In this case, SB 633 was written by a representative from Oregonians for Food and Shelter, and adopted by ALEC, word-for-word.
SS – In Salem, SB 633 was sponsored by ALEC member Senator Bill Hansell. The bill initially had bipartisan support, notably with Senator Betsy Johnson, but she would later vote against it after her constituents complained. Oregon Representative Sal Esquivel, another ALEC member, was the co-chair of the Agriculture subcommittee of ALEC’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force when ALEC’s preemption model bill was first approved. Jeff Case, Esquivel’s co-chair and a director for CropLife America, an agribusiness trade group, told a reporter that he “couldn’t remember” who had submitted the ALEC preemption bill, but that it was “probably” a representative from Oregon. Dahlman said that his organization had no input in promoting the bill at ALEC’s national summit.
“I have read in some stories that it became part of the conversation there but I am not familiar with any of the details surrounding that. We were not involved in that at all so I don’t, I can’t say either way. I read about it in the media just like everybody else but had no part in that.”
DM – Jackson County’s GMO initiative won an exception from SB 863 with the intervention of state representative Peter Buckley, a Democrat who represents Jackson County. But the law declared an emergency, meaning it went into effect on the day it was signed, October 3rd, 2013. The Josephine GMO ban, which made it onto the ballot later that year, sits on shaky ground. Gared Watters doesn’t think much of ALEC.
“Yeah I’ve heard a little bit here and there. And what I have heard is not good. They have the interest of corporations at heart, not the interests of the residents of the, the citizens of the United States and the citizens of Oregon. But the one thing that I have heard about ALEC though is that they don’t have the small business person’s best interest. They were formed by these large corporations and their interests are what they care about.”
SS – Dahlman said that Oregonians for Food and Shelter are considering challenging the Jackson County GMO ban, though they haven’t made a decision. He also said that he expects the courts to strike down Josephine County’s ban.
“I think the courts are going to be working it out one way or another. We think that it is clearly pre-empted by that law.”
DM – Chris Hardy, the farmer who found the GMO beets in the first place, says that Jackson County’s response at the polls should suffice.
“It’s, you know the two (unintelligible) of Jackson county citizens voting in favor of our ballot, of the measure 15-119 should send a clear message to any politicians any legal battles that they’re barking up the wrong tree. Our citizens in Jackson county and in Josephine county believe that protecting the future, a belief in protecting family farms in Southern Oregon is more important than protecting the interests of chemical corporations.”
This KBOO special investigative report was produced collaboratively by Mike Klepfer, Don Merrill, Sam Smith and Yana Maximova and Sam Bouman.
Last update on October 23, 2014 reflects most recent changes.