Supporters of a ban on genetically modified crops packed the Jackson County Courthouse auditorium in Medford Wednesday morning before filing more than 6,700 signatures to put the issue before voters.
After addressing commissioners, members of GMO-Free Jackson County held a rally on the courthouse steps. They hope to get a measure banning genetically modified crops in Jackson County on the May 2014 ballot.
"Clearly, GMOs are an issue of concern for a very large segment of our community," petitioner and Ashland organic farmer Chris Hardy said in a statement to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
County Clerk Chris Walker said 4,662 verified signatures are needed to get a measure on the 2014 primary ballot.
The GMO-Free measure would ban anyone from raising genetically engineered plants in Jackson County, with exemptions for scientific research. It also calls for the county to conduct inspections and allows enforcement through citizen lawsuits.
Chief petitioner Brian Comnes, a retiree from Ashland, said the group wants to protect organic farmers whose crops could be contaminated by pollen from genetically engineered crops, such as sugar beets and alfalfa.
"If someone is growing GMO alfalfa next to your organic alfalfa, the whole burden is on you not to get cross-pollinated," he said. "The guy who grows the GMO stuff doesn't have to do a thing."
GMO proponents say genetically modified crops are more resistant to weeds and pests, easier to grow and more productive. The World Health Organization has said the crops are "not likely" to present risks to human health, though opponents say genetic engineering has not been adequately tested, so there's no way to know the long-term effects of GMO consumption.
Multinational Swiss corporation Syngenta raises genetically modified sugar beets less than four miles away from several local organic farms. Farms in Gold Hill, Medford, Talent and Ashland have had to throw away seed or plow under crops to prevent possible contamination, GMO-Free organizers have said.
"Freedom to farm here should not be a one-way street in favor of national corporations," Hardy said, adding a ban is the only feasible solution for the personal and economic health of Jackson County.
Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, has thrown his support behind a GMO ban. He compared the issue to a large tire producer making tires that put a chemical slick on the roads and degrade tires from other companies.
"If we allow GMO crops to contaminate fields in Jackson County, it's to our economic detriment," Buckley said in a statement to the commissioners.
Buckley said he has drafted bills to require compensation for farmers who suffer losses from contamination by genetically modified crops, and to assure that if a county enacts a ban, it would be able to enforce it.
"We have our Right to Farm Law in Oregon," he said. "It's a question, and I want to make sure we are on solid legal footing."
Buckley added he expected strong opposition from the genetically engineered crops industry.
Jason Couch of the Jackson County Grange said he supports the ban, adding GMO and organic farms cannot coexist in the Rogue Valley.
"We don't feel you can do both in this county," Couch told the commissioners. "It's just too small."
Hardy said certified organic seeds grown in the Rogue Valley are sold all over the country through various cooperatives. Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulated sugar beets genetically modified to withstand the weed killer Roundup last July, they can be planted anywhere, and are grown all over the Rogue Valley, including a location across the road from his farm.
"We're pretty much surrounded here," he said.
Jackson County Farm Bureau President Ron Bjork said he thinks most farmers in the county believe in coexistence and would oppose an outright ban.
"This ballot measure they have, as far as I'm concerned, they should be talking about coexistence with the other farmers, and not trying to separate everybody," he said. "We believe in coexistence, the county Farm Bureau does."
Comnes said the owners of 90 farms, 230 businesses and four granges in the area have signed a statement in support of the ban.
Organic seed producer Chuck Burr of Ashland said he had to destroy his chard seed crop after learning that genetically engineered sugar beets were growing near enough to have cross-pollinated with his chard.
"I can't legally sell a seed I cannot guarantee would grow true to type," he said. "I have an absolute right to conduct commerce on my farm in my county where I live."
Mail Tribune reporter Ryan Pfeil and Associated Press writer Jeff Barnard contributed to this report.