Southern Oregon farmers divided on GMO bans

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Southern Oregon farmers are choosing sides in a pair of local campaigns to ban genetically modified crops.

Ban supporters say pollen from fields of genetically modified organisms can contaminate organic farms, and they are worried about use of the herbicide Roundup, which GMO plants are designed to resist.

But opponents say the modified crops aren’t much different from strains developed by cross-breeding over the centuries and that they shouldn’t be told what to grow.

Last year, the Legislature prohibited county-level bans on genetically modified crops but made an exception in Jackson County, where a measure had already qualified for the ballot.

Since then, a similar measure got on the ballot in neighboring Josephine County after a petition drive. Its backers say that if it passes, they will ask the courts to rule that the Legislature acted illegally and that the county ban should stand.

The measures will be up for a vote May 20.

The county campaigns cut across some political fault lines, one farmer opposed to genetically modified crops told the Grants Pass Daily Courier.

“People say it’s just a bunch of hippie organic farmers, but it’s not,” said Jared Watters, who describes himself as conservative and grows more than 1,000 acres of alfalfa and other crops in the Medford-White City area. “We’re conventional farmers.”

He said he started growing Roundup-resistant alfalfa, but plowed it up when it didn’t meet expectations. He said he’s dismayed by the hundreds of thousands of dollars that agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and Syngenta are pouring into fighting the bans.

Six major agribusiness contributors had given $380,000 to the campaign committee opposing the measures, early April filings show.

Farmer Bruce Schulz told the Medford Mail Tribune that he grows both conventional and genetically modified alfalfa because some of his customers don’t want GMO hay.

He said Roundup is safer than other chemicals, and he figures the yield of the herbicide-resistant crop will likely be double that of the conventional.

“It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out which one works better,” Schulz says.

If the ban is approved, he said, he’ll have to pull out a hay crop that can grow for six to 10 years if managed correctly.

Chuck Burr, president of the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association, said $4,400 worth of chard seed had to be destroyed on his farm near Ashland because of pollen contamination from a nearby GMO sugar beet field.

Because the 41-mile-long Rogue Valley is so narrow in many places, it’s difficult to avoid pollen that can travel for miles and poses a threat to organic farmers and seeders.

As for the herbicide, berry farmer Sam Pennington said he worries about crops that don’t die when sprayed.

“Eating that is utterly detrimental to humans,” he said. “I live on this Earth, too.”

Dalton Straus said he wanted to grow Roundup-resistant alfalfa this year, but he’s holding off until he sees the outcome of the ballot measures. Like other GMO proponents, he said there’s little difference between manipulating individual genes and cross-breeding plants to improve yields and bug resistance.

“I just don’t support taking my right to grow what I want to grow on my land,” he said.

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