Update on the Josephine County GE Plant Ordinance, Measure 17-58
9/24/2017 Update from Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families:
"We received notice on Sept. 20, 2017, the Oregon Judicial Court of Appeals has affirmed without opinion (AWOP) the White vs Josephine County with interveners Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families and Siskiyou Seeds. That's the bad news. The good news is that we still have that WIN on the books. Our work is clearly defined now to focus on the legislature. We need elected officials who are listening to the will of the people and we need to hold them accountable to that!
Thank you once again to all who have helped in this fight: Center for Sustainability Law attorneys Melissa Wischerath and Stephanie Dolan, intervener representatives Don Tipping and Mary Middleton"
The Oregon Court of Appeals this week upheld a lower court ruling that overturned a 2014 voter-approved initiative banning genetically engineered crops in Josephine County.
Without comment, the appellate court affirmed a decision by Circuit Court Judge Pat Wolke, who previously ruled that a 2013 state law forbidding local action against GMOs, short for genetically modified organisms, took precedence over the county's subsequent ban.
Wolke's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by farmers Robert and Shelley White of Cave Junction, who once grew GMO sugar beets for the Swiss corporation Syngenta.
John DiLorenzo Jr., a Portland attorney who represented the Whites, said the appellate decision effectively rendered the county's ordinance unenforceable. In fact, the county never tried to enforce it and did not defend it in court.
"Lots of jurisdictions have unforceable codes on the books," he said. "This is now one of them."
Mary Middleton, leader of a group called Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families that defended the ban in court, conceded defeat.
"I don't believe there's another next step in Oregon," she said. "There's not another court to go higher with this. We've come to the end of the road, in terms of litigation."
Even so, she vowed to continue to seek change at the legislative level, saying lawmakers are ignoring the will of the people.
"We are not giving up, we are not giving in, we are going to continue to work on behalf of our farmers who have asked for protection in this beautiful seed-growing region," she said.
Josephine County's initiative, known as Measure 17-58, easily passed 58 to 42 percent in May 2014, a surprising margin given the county's conservative bent.
GMO crops make up the vast majority of corn, cotton, soybeans, canola and sugar beets grown in the United States, and smaller percentages of alfalfa, papaya and squash.
Backers argued GMO crops, which included plots of sugar beet starts, can contaminate non-GMO crops through cross-pollination. The campaign was also formed on a belief of increased pesticide use with GMOs.
Opponents of a ban called it bad public policy and a victory of ideology over science and common sense.
Fearing a toehold anywhere in Oregon, a consortium of bio-chemical companies led by Syngenta and Monsanto spent $800,000 in an attempt to defeat it.
The county's ban was challenged by the Whites the day it took effect in 2015. They said the ban conflicted with a 2013 state law that forbid local bans on GMOs.
Jackson County was the only county exempted from the state law, because it already had a ballot measure in the works.
Middleton's group and fellow intervenors Siskiyou Seeds, a Williams-area seed farm, countered that the state's attempt to block local bans was illegally backdated and that Josephine County's initiative process therefore was valid. They also argued the Whites were mere hobby farmers in a "manufactured lawsuit."
But Wolke disagreed, brushing aside complaints about the standing of the Whites and siding with DiLorenzo, the Whites' attorney, who argued that state law was intended to make GMO policy uniform in all 36 Oregon counties instead of letting each county make its own rules in a piecemeal fashion.
The lone exception was Jackson County, which started its initiative before the state law was approved and therefore was exempted.
Voters there approved a ban on GMOs during the same election as the ban in Josephine County.
The litigation that followed was less likely to succeed and has since been settled to allow farmers there to continue to grow GMO alfalfa for eight more years.
Despite the setback in court, the fact that a ban on GMOs passed in a conservative county like Josephine suggests the issue could eventually gain traction in the Legislature.
Meanwhile, Josephine County Legal Counsel Wally Hicks said that if the Legislature ever changes course to allow a ban on GMOs, the county's ordinance is technically still on the books.
"If the Legislature were to change that statue at some point ... it might make it enforceable again," he said.
For now, he added, it's "on the books — unenforceable and unenforced."
Photo from Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families.