Oregon agency’s control over modified crops is limited

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon agriculture officials say the state has no authority over genetically modified crops once federal regulators deem them safe for commercial use.

In a letter to Gov. John Kitzhaber, the Oregon Department of Agriculture said state law allows it to create “control areas” for genetically engineered crops to deal with pests and disease. But it can create such areas only for GE crops that are in the trial phase.

Officials say once a GE crop is “deregulated” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is deemed not to be a carrier of pests or disease — and the state loses authority over the crop.

In October, Kitzhaber directed the state Agriculture Department to use its authority to deal with conflicts between GE and non-GE crops, including by creating a statewide mapping system for GMO field locations, establishing buffer zones and exclusion areas.

But the department’s letter to Kitzhaber shows its authority for dealing with GE issues is limited.

The governor also announced the creation of a task force to study issues related to GMOs, such as mapping and labeling.

The move was spurred by several instances of genetic contamination in the region that rendered non-engineered crops unsellable on the export market. It came after lawmakers adopted a bill to ban county governments from regulating GMOs on their own.

Jackson County was exempted from the law because a measure already had qualified for the ballot. Residents in that county voted to ban genetically engineered crops in May.

State regulators say Oregon law does not require farmers to submit cropping information to the state Department of Agriculture, making the mapping of genetically engineered crops impossible. The state receives notification of proposed GMO field trials from the USDA — but such notifications often don’t include the county where the trials are taking place, and never include the specific locations of fields.

More than a decade ago, the state established one control area for genetically engineered bentgrass in central Oregon, requiring buffer zones and other measures. The GE bentgrass was grown as part of field trials, meaning it wasn’t yet deemed safe for commercial cultivation.

Oregon regulators say they can provide input and monitor trials of GE crops designed to produce vaccines, drugs, enzymes or other medicinal compounds — so-called biopharmaceuticals. But to date, the state hasn’t received notification of any biopharmaceutical crop trials in Oregon.

Oregon regulators say the legislature could grant them the option to map GMOs or otherwise regulate genetically engineered crops. The governor has said he could introduce new GMO-related legislation in the 2015 session.

And Oregonians could soon have a say on GMO labeling: Proponents of a ballot measure to require the labeling say they have submitted enough signatures to qualify the measure for a statewide vote in November.

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