The anti-GMO groups chalked up another win May 20 when voters in two counties in southern Oregon’s agriculture-heavy Rogue Valley passed ballot initiatives to ban the growing of genetically modified crops.
Oregon’s Jackson County’s Measure 15-119 passed by 66 percent.
According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), proponents of the ban raised only $375,000 compared with nearly $1 million raised by GMO supporters including Monsanto, Syngenta and Du- Pont Pioneer.
Voters in Oregon’s Josephine County passed Measure 17-58 by a slightly narrower margin, 58 percent to 42 percent. This one is expected to end up with a court date because the state passed a law in October 2013 limiting counties’ rights to ban GMOs. The Jackson County measure is exempt from the state law because it had already qualified for the ballot prior to the passage of S.B. 863, according to OCA.
“The passing of these two GMO bans in Jackson and Josephine Counties should send a clear signal to politicians that citizens not only reject unregulated and hazardous GMOs, but are willing to defy the indentured politicians who pass laws, like Oregon’s S.B. 863, that take away county rights to ban GMOs and obliterate a 100-year tradition of home rule and balance of powers between counties and the state,” said Ronnie Cummins, National Director of OCA.
“The margins of victory for these two measures also bode well for passing Oregon’s Ballot Initiative 44 in November 2014, a statewide ballot measure to require mandatory labeling of GMO foods and foods containing GMO ingredients, sold at retail,” Cummins added.
Opponents of the two measures conceded defeat but believe the Oregon GMO debate is not over yet.
“We respect the voice of the voters, but remain convinced…the crop ban is bad public policy,” said Barry Bushue, President of the Oregon Farm Bureau. “We will continue to fight to protect the rights of all farmers to choose for themselves how they farm.”
GMO supporters believe that media and activists have successfully created a fear in consumers, without the science to back it.
“I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs,” New York journalist Keith Kloor writes in a blog at Slate.com.
These Oregon counties are not the first to put restrictions on GMOs. Other counties with genetically engineered (GE) crop bans include California’s Santa Cruz County, Trinity County, Marin County and Mendocino County, and Washington’s San Juan County. Hawaii’s Big Island and Oahu have banned GE taro and coffee.
Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have all passed labeling laws, although they don’t take effect immediately. There are currently 85 bills on GMO labeling pending in 30 states, as well as dueling bills in Congress. Labeling ballot measures previously failed in California and Washington state. Activists in Oregon, Colorado and in Arizona are currently gathering signatures to put GMO labeling measures on their states’ ballots.
GMO crops were planted on about 169 million U.S. acres in 2013, about half the total land used for crops, according to the USDA.
Those who grow genetically modified crops in Jackson or Josephine Counties have a year to harvest or destroy them, according to the ballot measures. Those who ignore the bans will be looking at fines. Observers and officials expect both bans to end up in court. If judges hold up the GMO prohibition, it could drive Syngenta out of the Rogue Valley where it grows seed for sugar beets resistant to the weed killer Roundup.
“These victories represent a turning point in the food movement. Just two weeks ago, the Governor of Vermont signed a historic law mandating that GE foods sold in Vermont be labeled. Across the country, members of the food movement are engaging in the political process and demanding their rights as consumers and as citizens,” said Rebecca Spector, who spearheads state labeling initiatives for Center for Food Safety.
Earlier this month, a Citizens’ Initiative Review of the ban concluded that farms in Jackson County are at “serious” risk of contamination by GE crops. The review also concluded that the initiative would not incur significant enforcement costs.
Global GMO discussions
The GMO debate is far from just a U.S. discussion.
The increased production of genetically modified crops around the globe has led to a higher number of incidents of low levels of GMOs being detected in traded food and feed, according to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The incidents have led to trade disruptions between countries with shipments of grain, cereal and other crops being blocked by importing countries and destroyed or returned to the country of origin.
The trace amounts of GM crops become mixed with non-GM food and feed crops by accident during field production (for example, a field trial of a GM crop grown near a field of a non-GM crop), processing, packing, storage and transportation, according to FAO.
There is no international agreement defining or quantifying “low level,” therefore the interpretation varies from country to country. In many countries it is interpreted as any level at which detection is possible, i.e., very low trace levels, while in other countries case-by-case decisions are taken on what level is acceptable.
The GM crop in question may be authorized for commercial use or sale in one or more countries but not yet authorized in an importing country. Therefore, if the importing country detects the unauthorized crop, it may be legally obliged to reject the shipment.
In the first survey of its kind, 75 out of 193 FAO member countries responded to questions on low levels of GM crops in international food and animal feed trade.
The survey results were discussed at a technical consultation organized by FAO and held in Rome on March 20 and 21 to review the extent and pattern of trade disruptions caused by the contaminated shipments. The meeting discussed trade issues related to low levels of GM crops, but skipped the debate on the pros and cons of GM crops.
The survey reveals:
• Respondents reported 198 incidents of low levels of GM crops mixed into non-GM crops between 2002 and 2012;
• There was a jump in cases between 2009 and 2012, when 138 out of the 198 incidents were reported;
Shipments with low levels of GM crops originated mainly from the U.S.,
Canada and China, although other countries also accidently shipped such
• Once detected, most shipments were destroyed or returned to the exporting country;
• The highest number of incidents involved linseed, rice, maize and papaya.
“The numbers of incidents are small relative to the millions of tonnes of food and feed traded every day,” said Renata Clarke, FAO Senior Food Safety Officer in charge of the survey. “But because trade disruptions may be very costly and given the reported increase in the occurrence of these disruptions, FAO conducted this survey and is holding a technical consultation to try to start a dialogue between countries on the issue.”
“We were surprised to see incidents from every region,” she said. “It seems the more testing and more monitoring they do, the more incidents they find.”
“Although testing technology is more sensitive now, I would note that 37 out of 75 countries responded that they have little or no capacity to detect GMOs; that is, they don’t have the laboratories, technicians, and equipment to do so,” she added.
“Many countries have asked FAO to help improve their capacity to detect GMOs.”
“In the survey, countries also asked us to help them assess whether GM crops are safe to eat and we would like to see countries sharing any scientific findings they have on the subject,” she said.
Other survey findings include:
• 30 countries produce GM crops, either for research or commercial production or both, and more GM crops are being developed;
• 17 countries do not have any food safety, feed safety or environmental regulations on GM crops;
• 55 countries have zerotolerance policy for unauthorized GM crops;
• 38 countries consider the different policies on GMOs existing between trading partners is an important factor in contributing to the trade risk posed by the presence of low levels of GM crops in some traded foods.
In most countries, there are no generally applicable low level GMO policies, legislation or regulations yet in place. Different options have been used when setting such policy, including a zero tolerance policy, a low threshold policy and a case-by-case policy.
Farmers around the world who use seeds improved with biotechnology are benefitting economically while improving the environmental sustainability of their farming operations, according to a global impacts study.
The economic benefits for farmers who use genetically modified seeds amounted to an average of more than $117/hectare in 2012, according to the report, “GM Crops:
Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2012,” released by PG Economics.
“Half of the farm income gains and the majority of the environmental gains associated with changes in pesticide use and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions occurred in developing countries,” said Graham Brookes, co-author of the report.
Dr. Cathleen Enright, Executive Vice President for food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization , points out that the report’s findings regarding biotechnology’s contributions to the environment are equally significant.
“The increased use of insect-resistant crops has reduced the need for chemical insecticides and the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops have enabled farmers to switch to more benign herbicides to help control weeds,” says Enright. “In addition, the switch to no-till cropping systems by farmers growing herbicide-tolerant crops has reduced on-farm fuel use, enhanced soil quality and cut greenhouse gas emissions.”
The PG Economics annual global impacts report quantifies the impact of agricultural biotechnology on the environment and on farmer incomes since biotech’s commercialization in 1996.
Among the key findings:
Biotech crops have contributed to significantly reducing the amount of
greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This results from
less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage
with biotech crops.
In 2012, this was equivalent to removing 27 billion kilograms of carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 11.9 million cars from
the road for one year.
• Crop biotechnology has reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2012) by 503 million kg (-8.8 percent).
As a result, the environmental impact associated with herbicide and
insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops decreased by 18.7
insect resistant (IR) technology used in GM cotton and GM corn has
consistently delivered yield gains from reduced pest damage. The average
yield gains over the 1996-2012 period across all users of this
technology has been 10.4 percent for insect resistant corn and 16.1
percent for insect resistant cotton.
Farmers who use improved seeds and grow biotech crops have seen
substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $18.8
billion in 2012 and $116.6 billion for the 17-year (1996- 2012) period.
The highest yield gains were obtained by farmers in developing
countries, many of which are resource-poor and farm small plots of land;
• The total farm income gain of $116.6 billion was divided equally between farmers in developing and developed countries.
Between 1996 and 2012, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 122 million tonnes of soybeans and 231 million tonnes of corn. The technology has also contributed an extra 18.2 million tonnes of cotton lint and 6.6 million tonnes of canola. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor