Legal grounds to restrict crops OK'd by USDA 'shaky'

Oregon farm regulators don't have the authority to restrict biotech crops that USDA allows to be grown freely, according to the state's top agriculture official.

For biotech crops that remain regulated by the federal government, the Oregon Department of Agriculture can designate "control areas" for field testing, said Katy Coba, the agency's director.

The agency has used this authority to protect grass seed farms in the Willamette Valley by establishing a control area in Central Oregon for genetically engineered bentgrass, she said.

That crop, which can withstand glyphosate herbicides, was later found to have escaped during field trials.

However, the ODA and the state's Department of Justice have determined the situation changes when crops are deregulated by USDA.

State officials would be on shaky legal grounds if they tried to regulate a biotech crop that USDA has determined not to pose a plant pest, disease or weed risk, Coba said.

Coba spoke about ODA's limited authority over biotech crops May 12 during the most recent meeting of Gov. John Kitzhaber's taks force on genetic engineering.

The task force is working on a report to the state legislature that aims to frame the controversies over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The ODA also lacks statutory authority to require a map "pinning" system to reduce the risk of cross pollination between biotech, organic and conventional crops, Coba said.

The Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association administers a pinning system for seed crops on a voluntary basis, she said.

The task force could identify such a pinning system as a way to encourage coexistence between GMOs and other crops, said Peter Harkema, project manager at Oregon Consensus, a program at Portland State University that assists the task force.

When asked about ODA's restrictions on canola, Coba explained the legislature established agency authority over that particular crop.

Genetically engineered canola can cross with wild mustard, which can cross with specialty seeds, said Frank Morton, an organic seed grower from Philomath, Ore.

Coba responded that this possibility would not allow ODA to extend its "control area" authority over biotech canola specifically.

Apart from discussing ODA's jurisdiction over biotech crops, task force members listed "concerns" and "benefits" related to genetic engineering.

For example, critics said biotech crops were causing weeds to build resistance to herbicides, leading to the use of more toxic chemicals.

Proponents said crops with genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria are able to repel pests and have reduced the use of insecticides.

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