National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Two Oregon counties’ voters ban GMO crops

By Charles Taylor

Photo by Lily Rothrock/Flickr
In a May 2013 protest in Lane County (Eugene), Ore., marchers display their opposition to genetically modified crops in the state’s southern counties.


David slew Goliath at the ballot box in southern Oregon when voters in neighboring Jackson and Josephine counties overwhelmingly passed bans on genetically modified crops last month — the first popular votes on GMOs in the nation.

In Jackson County, a ban on so-called GMO crops passed with 66 percent of the vote — despite proponents’ being outspent nearly two-to-one by the agro-science industry. Next door in Josephine County, 58 percent of voters backed a proposed GMO ban there.

Campaign finance reports filed with the Oregon secretary of state showed that Good Neighbor Farmers, a group opposed to the ban in Jackson County, raised more than $929,000 — much of it coming from out of state — to fight the ordinance. Contributors included Bayer CropScience, Monsanto Company and Dow AgroSciences. Ban backers, who triumphed by using shoe leather, social media and local organizing, reported raising $386,000.

Neither county government took an official position on the bans. But now they’re considering next steps — costs and potential legal issues as part of a an ongoing discussion of the ordinances’ consequences.

The Jackson County law requires the harvesting, destruction or removal of “all genetically engineered plants” within 12 months of the ban’s passage.

County Administrator Danny Jordan told the three-member commission in March that it could cost the county an estimated $219,000 per year to enforce the new law.

“I think it’s fairly clear what the intended purpose of the ordinance is,” he said at a County Board meeting. “There’s a lot of language in here that results in other actions that are necessarily costly to the county to implement….If the county were to fund it, it’s a general fund expenditure.” He added that he knew of no other means of funding enforcement or abatement “unless there’s some grants that I’m unaware of… maybe there’s private foundations that would support it, maybe there’s groups of people that support the ordinance.”

There is no mainstream scientific research that has shown GMO crops to be harmful, still, localities and states have been enacting bans and GMO labeling requirements. Supporters of the ban say genetically modified crops are still experimental.

Opponents were quick to express their disappointment, particularly with the Jackson County ordinance. “Regrettably ideology defeated sound science and common sense in Jackson County,” Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said in a statement. “We respect the voice of the voters, but remain convinced [that this] is bad public policy.”

Whether Josephine County’s ban proves to be bad public policy or not, it most likely may not be legally enforceable. Last fall, the Oregon Legislature outlawed local bans on GMOs but grandfathered Jackson County because its initiative had already qualified for the ballot. Josephine County was not exempted.

Cherryl Walker, chairwoman of the Josephine Board of Commissioners, said the county is reviewing its options. “Are we in a position to carry out the wishes of the voters as a home-rule county or will we defer to the state law? We’re working on trying to find that answer at the moment,” she told The Oregonian.

Wally Hicks, the county’s elected counsel, said, “The issue is going to become whether that state preemption is valid. The opponents of GMO are confident that there’s just no problem…. I’m not so sanguine about that.”

In any event, the county is in no financial shape to enforce the ban, he added.

“As a government, we are broke and we don’t have enough money to fund our sheriff’s patrols,” Hicks said. “So we aren’t going to be undertaking any crusades to rid the county of GMO, but we will try to provide the notice that this citizens’ measure seems to require.”