Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson famously said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
On Tuesday, the strategy of Oregon anti-GMO groups to convince residents in various counties to approve ballot initiatives banning the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops was dropped to the canvas when the voters of Benton County overwhelming rejected Measure 2-89, the so-called Benton County Local Food Ordinance.
Named after U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a 19th century lawmaker who played an instrumental role in acquiring Oregon as a U.S. territory from Great Britain in the mid-1800s, Benton County is located in northwest Oregon and contains Corvallis, the home of Oregon State University (OSU). Although millennials – who despite overwhelming scientific evidence regarding the safety of food derived from GMOs continue to maintain a high degree of skepticism – make up a significant portion of the population in Benton County, a jaw dropping 72.53 percent of the electorate voted against Measure 2-89. The result, however, simply underscores the overreaching nature of the proposal and that the prospective consequences were so devastating.
The measure, which would have banned the planting of genetically modified crops in the county and required the harvesting or destruction of such crops within 90 days of passage, was completely contrary to the concept of coexistence. In reality, it sought to pit farmer against farmer, depending on a grower’s production method.
The proposal also failed to provide a way for farmers to recover their economic losses. Thus, passage of Measure 2-89 would have completely disrupted and, in some cases, terminated the operations of farmers whose families who have been growing crops in Benton County for generations. The initiative further deprived seed companies of patent rights for both GE and non-GE seeds, which almost certainly would have violated federal patent law but would also have a chilling effect on innovation, entrepreneurialism and economic development in Benton County.
A variety of groups publicly opposed Measure 2-89 including the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, Oregonians for Food and Shelter, Benton County Farm Bureau, Williamette Valley Specially Seed Association, Specialty Seed Growers of Western Oregon as well as Benton County’s three elected commissioners. The area’s leading newspapers – the OSU Daily Barometer, Corvallis Times Gazette and Albany Democrat Herald – all opined against the initiative.
While the measure’s supporters claimed that its main intent was to ban the cultivation of GE crops, the scope was clearly much broader than that. One provision of the question stated, “It shall be unlawful for any corporation or governmental entity to engage in the use of genetically engineered organisms within Benton County.”
According to OSU, passage of the measure would have stopped research that was valued at $18.3 million from external funding as well as adversely impacted at least 120 faculty positions in eight different OSU colleges, 100-200 university support staff and the education of up to 400 students. Overall, Measure 2-89 could have cost OSU more than $30 million in grant funding for science, medical and agricultural research.
Specific projects that would have been disrupted or halted altogether included the development of therapies for Lou Gehrig’s disease and Ebola virus; search for ways to treat and prevent skin, lung, ovarian, bone, and pancreatic cancers; prevention or reduction of the effects of agricultural diseases on Oregon crops; and development of improved environmental cleanup methods.
Private biotechnology companies based or operating in Benton County would also been adversely impact if Measure 2-89 had passed. For example, Corvallis-based Siga Labs uses genetic engineering to fulfill a $463 million contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to provide anti-smallpox drugs to the Strategic National Stockpile.
Finally, Measure 2-89 directly contradicted a 2013 state law that expressly preempts local governments from regulating seed. According to the measure’s proponents, the authority for the proposal came from the people’s right to self-government and such power is not restricted by the limitations of pre-emptive laws. The measure further sought to grant rights to trees, plants and seeds and allowed individuals to bring a private right of action on behalf of such “natural communities,” provided the latter was listed as the plaintiff in such actions.
Proponents of Measure 2-89 have already indicated their intention to bring back a revised version of the proposal as soon as next year. Hopefully, common sense will prevail and supporters will let the misguided initiative stay on the canvas and be counted out forever.