Voters Enmeshed Again in GMO Politics

Oregonians once again may be asked to decide about stricter food labeling to reveal genetically modified crops.Oregonians will likely vote again this fall on genetically modified crops, an issue that many view with passion and others with fear and loathing.

The battle over GMO crops pits farmers against farmers, threatens to upset the balance of trade and raises suspicions among consumers and the hackles of agrochemical companies such as Monsanto. It is better than a reality TV show. And it often has the same level of loud discourse. 

Some have tried to encourage peaceful co-existence among farmers with so-called engineered crops and farmers with non-engineered crops. Advocates of this approach say it requires adequate buffers between the two kinds of crops so organic fields aren't infiltrated and cross-pollinated. The only way to establish buffers is to know where GMO crops are being grown, and that's apparently the rub.

The Associated Press carried a story indicating some seed associations around the nation are carrying out mapping, with varying levels of support from biotech companies. But AP reports the mapping is voluntary and spotty. The information is only shared among fellow growers to avoid what biotech companies warn could be a map for agricultural vigilantes bent on crop sabotage.

Robert Purdy, who grows genetically engineered sugar beets in the Willamette Valley on mapped farmland, agrees. "If mapping were made public," he told AP, "nothing could stop people from pulling out those sugar beet plants." 

Organic farmers, whose livelihood depends on crop purity, or at least the perception of purity, say mapping made public is crucial to successful co-existence. "Mapping would bring transparency to a system that's extremely opaque," according to the Portland-based Center for Food Safety.

Governor Kitzhaber directed the Department of Agriculture last fall to map GMO field locations statewide and identify buffer zones. However, state officials may lack the authority to undertake such mapping. They are moving ahead with "digitizing" crop fields, creating a platform for a subsequent GMO field mapping effort. 

The AP cites statistics indicating more than 200 different crops are cultivated on around 24,000 farms. Most crops grown in Oregon lack genetically modified counterparts. Oregon farmers already have experienced trade embargoes on their crops after testing revealed possible cross-pollination. They are pushing for greater disclosure, a formal cross-pollination prevention system and liability for GE crop growers. 

This is the kind of issue average citizens would wish could be resolved through negotiation or deliberation in the legislature. It may come to that, but meanwhile Oregon voters will be thrown into the lurch and asked to decide on a GMO crop labeling measure.

Voters in Jackson County already approved by a nearly 2-to-1 margin a local measure to ban planting GMO crops. Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed GMO labeling measures. Other states, such as Colorado, may vote on GMO-related ballot measures. 

Oregonians defeated a GMO labeling measure in 2002 after opponents successfully argued it was too complicated to implement. The political conversation this time around may not be so simple, as consumers, often backed by retailers, have demanded more transparent food labeling and stronger food safety steps.