Jackson County’s Ban on Genetically Engineered Crops Will Stand

Federal Court Approves Settlement

Publish Date: Winter 2016

In May, 2014, residents of Jackson County voted to ban the production of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the county by a 66% margin. The ballot initiative resulted from a group of farmers and citizens who were concerned about GE pollen affecting the burgeoning organic seed industry in Southern Oregon.

In 2015, the law was challenged by two GE alfalfa farmers, who claimed that the new law violated Oregon’s Right to Farm Law. However, in May, Federal Magistrate Mark D. Clarke rejected that challenge and ruled in favor of those defending the law, the Our Family Farms Coalition (OFFC), Center for Food Safety (CFS), and Jackson County. The GE alfalfa growers continue to claim that the law would constitute an unconstitutional taking if they were required to remove their GE alfalfa crop which is a perennial.

In December, an Oregon Federal Magistrate approved a settlement that will allow Jackson County Oregon’s voter-approved law prohibiting the cultivation of genetically engineered crops to stand.

“This is really an important victory since it creates the potential for farmers growing traditional crops in Jackson County to thrive without the fear of contamination by GMOs,” said Elise Higley, the executive director of OFFC. “It is great to know that the will of the 66 percent of our county’s voters that passed this measure will be given effect.”

“Today’s settlement protects Jackson County’s ordinance from any appeal, and in so doing is another important victory for farmers and the environment,” said George Kimbrell, CFS Senior Attorney, and counsel in the case. “GE-Free Zones like Jackson County is important to the future of our food because they allow farmers to grow traditional and organic crops without risk of transgenic contamination. U.S. farmers and consumers have a right to say no to Monsanto’s damaging and pesticide-driven business model.”

Under the proposed settlement, OFFC and CFS agreed not to bring an enforcement action requiring growers to remove their perennial GE alfalfa crop if they had planted it before the Jackson County ban took effect. Those growers, in turn, would agree to take specific measures to prevent the spread of GE alfalfa to neighboring farms, not plant any new GE alfalfa and switch their fields out of GE alfalfa at the end of their current crops useful life (not to exceed 8 years.) While the settlement was supported by farmers who would continue to be impacted by the phase-out period for GE alfalfa they said the impacts on their operations highlight why claims that GE cultivation could co-exist with traditional crops are without merit.

“It is very good that Jackson County’s ban on GE crops will stand, but even under the settlement we will have a reminder about the impacts of GE contamination and that co-existence between GE and traditional crops is not possible,” says Jackson County farmer David Salch who farms near a Jackson County field where GE alfalfa is grown. “Even though I support the settlement as the best available option, our farm, our customers, and our neighbors will pay the price of not being able to raise GE-free honey due to the nearby GE alfalfa until they decide to remove it in 5 to 8 years.” OFFC and CFS were jointly represented by legal counsel from CFS and the Earthrise Law Center. “This case is important in that it makes clear that farmers growing traditional crops have the right to adopt local laws to protect their crops against GE contamination,” said attorney Lia Comerford with the Earthrise Law Center. “This has always been a David and Goliath battle and we are very pleased Jackson County’s ban on GE crops will stand.”