SALEM — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber will propose a legislative fix in this month aimed at fostering coexistence among biotech, conventional and organic crops.
Details of the proposal haven’t yet been disclosed and the legislative language will likely be amended before an actual bill is introduced, said Richard Whitman, the governor’s natural resources policy director.
“The anticipation is there will be more conversation among stakeholders before we finalize the bill,” Whitman said.
A task force on genetically modified organisms appears to have helped Kitzhaber decide on a course of action.
In 2013, the Oregon Legislature pre-empted most local governments from restricting genetically modified crops at Kitzhaber’s urging.
The governor then appointed a task force to frame the controversy over genetically modified organisms and inform lawmakers’ decisions on possible statewide legislation.
The task force’s recently completed report does not make any policy recommendations but lays out the points of contention between critics and proponents of genetically engineered crops.
However, its members did agree that more clarity is needed about the state’s role in regulating GMOs and how it diverges from federal authority.
The main question now is what measures Kitzhaber or state lawmakers will put forward to prevent unwanted cross-pollination among these crops or if farmers can agree on a voluntary system to avoid such gene flow.
“All eyes are going to be on the Legislature and what the governor is planning to do,” said Ivan Maluski, executive director of Friends of Family Farms, which wants stronger biotech regulation. “This task force marks the beginning of the process, not the end.”
One subject of debate will probably be the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s “control area” authority over biotech crops, said Maluski.
Currently, ODA can restrict where genetically engineered crops are planted as long as the USDA retains jurisdiction over them, but the state agency believes it loses that power once the crop is deregulated by federal officials.
State legislation could establish that ODA may still create or retain “control areas” even after USDA lifts its own restrictions on biotech crops, said Maluski.
For example, such state control areas could require biotech farmers to maintain “isolation distances” to mitigate the risk of cross-pollination with non-GMOs, he said.
“It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis, as it should be,” Maluski said.
Another concept involves compensating organic and conventional growers if their crops are contaminated by pollen from biotech plants, said Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, an organic certification agency.
There should be a way to compensate non-GMO farmers for damages from cross-pollination that wouldn’t require them to buy insurance policies, he said.
Proponents of biotechnology say farmers who grow biotech, conventional and organic crops can work out their differences without interference from the government.
“Farmers have learned to coexist for years,” said Paulette Pyle, grass roots director for Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agribusiness industry group.
Decades ago, a conflict between cherry growers and wheat farmers over drift from 2,4-D herbicides threatened to spur legislation or erupt into litigation, but neighbors were ultimately able to resolve the issue through communication, Pyle said.
The potential for biotech varieties to pollinate organic crops isn’t actually a problem under USDA organic rules, which regulate farm practices but don’t set up standards for genetic purity, she said.
“The organic folks have put themselves in that market box,” Pyle said. “They can advertise their product any way they want, but they’ve got to accept responsibility.”
Bills that would increase government oversight of biotech crops would actually impede coexistence by limiting crop choices for farmers, said Greg Loberg, manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Co.
“It sounds threatening,” he said. “There will be winners and losers in a situation where government intervention occurs through legislation.”
Voluntary coexistence measures for biotech, conventional and organic crops would be preferable to those mandated by regulators, he said.
For example, seed growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley are already able to reduce the chances of cross-pollination among related crops through a voluntary mapping system, Loberg said.
“It’s not a broken system,” he said. “It’s quite functional.”
Schreiner of Oregon Tilth said a mapping system is one possibility for co-existence but he’s skeptical that it would be effective without regulatory oversight.
“The voluntary system we don’t see as having a high likelihood of success due to the lack of incentive for GE producers to participate,” he said.