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Food Fight Turns on Local Rights

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page, Politics and Democracy page and our Oregon News page.

What started out as an effort to keep genetically modified crops out of Benton County appears to be morphing into a fight over community versus corporate rights. It's also part of broader argument that's playing out in other jurisdictions around the state and around the country.

Corvallis-area organic farmers Harry MacCormack, Clint Lindsey and Dana Allen filed paperwork in 2012 for an initiative petition to create the Benton County Local Food System Ordinance. The effort hit several legal roadblocks along the way, with the county clerk ruling three times that the proposed ballot measure did not meet all the legal requirements to be approved for circulation.

But on Jan. 31 the group won a partial victory in Benton County Circuit Court when Judge Locke Williams ruled that the measure had passed the single subject test. Williams is expected to rule soon on a second question regarding the full text of the measure.

If Williams signs off on that issue, the petitioners and their group, the Benton County Community Rights Coalition, could begin gathering signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot.

The measure, if approved, would ban the planting of genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, or the patenting of seeds anywhere in Benton County.

But it would do much more than that: The Benton County Local Food System Ordinance also asserts a fundamental "right to self-government" and denies the authority of the state or federal government to overrule its provisions.

If passed, that would put the county on a collision course with a new state law, Senate Bill 863, which specifically prohibits local governments from attempting to regulate the use or production of agricultural seed.

Passed in response to several anti-GMO efforts around the state, SB 863 would allow a proposed measure in Jackson County, which qualified for the ballot there before the state law was enacted, to go to a vote. But it would appear to block the Benton County measure and others like it while a governor-appointed task force takes up the question of whether to regulate GMOs statewide.