About 300 people turned out Saturday at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza in downtown Eugene for a rally aimed at building support for a statewide ballot measure that would require labeling of genetically modified foods in Oregon, both raw and packaged, at the point of purchase.

Supporters of the measure have until July 3 to gather nearly 90,000 valid voter signatures to qualify the measure for the November general election ballot.

The campaign is spearheaded by a group called Oregon Right to Know.

A measure passed earlier this month in Jackson County by a wide margin that bans growing GMO crops in that county.

A similar measure passed in Josephine County, but it will not go into effect without a court challenge because the state Legislature passed a bill in 2013 to prohibit local governments from passing GMO bans.

Jackson County's measure already had qualified for the ballot before the Legislature's action, so it will go into effect.

Rather than banning the growth of GMO crops, Oregon Right to Know's statewide ballot measure would require that labels on foods and food ingredients indicate whether they contain genetically modified organisms.

Factory packaging would have to be labeled, "produced with genetic engineering" or "partially produced with genetic engineering." In the case of raw foods, store shelves would have to carry the label.

GMO products are those whose DNA has been altered by the introduction of genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria in the laboratory to achieve a desired effect.

For example, many GMO crops have been altered to contain their own pesticides in their seeds so that they resist pests and diseases that commonly can destroy the crop.

One of the speakers at Saturday's rally, cultural anthropologist Brett Dimond, assailed that practice.

"I even have visual aids," Dimond said, holding up three ears of corn.

"This one is organic, this one is conventional, and this one is GMO," he said. "The Food and Drug Administration says that these are all the same, but this one," he said, waving the GMO cob in the air, "has pesticide growing inside it."

Dimond picked up a spray can of a popular pesticide.

"I think the GMO corn is more like this can than it is the other ears of corn, but at least the can has been tested for its effects," he said.

"Monsanto tells the FDA that their corn is the same as conventional corn so it doesn't need to be tested, and the FDA believes them. But then they tell (the patent office) that their corn is so different and special that it deserves a patent, and they get one."

Because there aren't any disclosure requirements, he said, consumers often don't know that they may be ingesting genetically modified organisms that have not been proven scientifically to be safe.

No one in favor of GMOs got up to speak at the rally, but Monsanto, one of the major developers of genetically modified products, addresses the issue on its website.

"At Monsanto, we work to bring better seeds for farmers," the company says. "We do this by having a world-class breeding program that aims to keep finding the best plants adapted to local conditions. And, sometimes, we use genetic modification to bring beneficial traits to the plant, such as the ability to tolerate drought better, resist herbicide applications or ward off pests."

But the company disagrees that its GMO seeds are not safe or untested.

"Monsanto has committed to make scientific and safety information on its products available, accessible and understandable," the website says.

"It is our intent to ensure that Monsanto's activities, policies and data (where possible), as well as the processes we undertake in making major business decisions, are shared in an open manner that is judged to be clear and accessible."

Kristi Sakai, who attended Saturday's rally with her youngest child, 14-year-old Kaede, isn't so sure.

"I grew up in the third generation of a grass-seed farm family in Halsey, and I walked around the farm around a spray tank of pesticide the whole time I was growing up," Sakai said.

"All three of my children have autism, and I don't know the cause. My son nearly died of a brain tumor when he was 17. I'm very concerned about the environmental impact that might have happened to cause these health issues."

She's not blaming pesticides or GMOs for her family's problems, but she's not absolving them, either.

"I just don't know," Sakai said. "At this point, I don't think anybody really knows."

Amber King, who drove over from Waldport with her two young daughters, Mary Jane and Freja, said she wholeheartedly supports the labeling requirement.

"I believe we need freedom in our food choices and the right to know we are giving our families foods that don't contain these genetically modified characteristics if we don't approve of them," King said.

"I support the ballot measure, and I believe in spreading the word by voting at the cash register, every day."

Linda Davies, manager of the community-supported agriculture program at Winter Green Community Farm in Noti, supports the labeling project but also worries about the effect Monsanto and other companies are having on the ability of local farmers to survive.

"There are many seed varieties that places like Winter Green would like to grow but can't any more because the big companies have modified them and now own the rights to those seeds," Davies said. "There are many varieties of many fruits and vegetables that have been tied up that way."

It's a threat that Cheryl Levie, a registered nurse with 30 years of emergency room experience and part of the Jackson County anti-GMO effort, believes is happening there and elsewhere.

"In Jackson County, Syngenta -- from Switzerland -- has been planting all these secret plots genetically modified plants, and when they cross-pollinate with other farmers' plants, they go to court to prevent those farmers from selling the plants or saving any of the seed because they own the patents," Levie said.

"Many farmers have left rather than have their farms contaminated."

The irony, she said, "is that Switzerland won't even let Syngenta plant in their own country because GMO crops are not allowed there."

Jackson County's successful effort to ban GMO crops drew a huge influx of funds from out-of-state corporations that develop genetically modified plants.

On April 3 alone, Levie said, opponents of the GMO ban contributed just under $929,000 in an attempt to defeat the effort.

Major contributors included Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta and Dow Chemical, she said.

Follow Randi on Twitter @BjornstadRandi . Email randi.bjornstad@registerguard.com .

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