Earlier this month, Jackson County, Oregon’s ban on the cultivation of genetically modified organisms went into effect. It is the first such ban in the state of Oregon, and one of few in the United States.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have undergone a process where their genes are spliced with another plant or animal in order to create a new organism with new abilities, such as resistance to herbicides or protection against parasites. This typically allows farmers to grow higher yields of crops. Many common commodity crops are grown this way, such as soybeans, feed corn (for livestock), and sugar beets.
On Saturday, June 6th, Jackson County citizens could begin alerting officials of their neighbors’ violations of the ban. While these officials won’t be seeking out offenders of the ban, nor will they force them to destroy those GMO crops, the symbolic nature of the voter-approved ordinance permeates throughout the minds of individuals on both sides of the issue.
The battle over Jackson County’s freedom to produce is representative of the nation as a whole. On both the west and east coasts, with relatively scarce examples in middle America, municipalities are debating both the merit of genetically modified organisms, as well as whether those foods should be labeled as such.
Not only are consumers thrust into this debate, but food producers are seeing their livelihoods at stake.
George Kimbrell believes that GMOs are not acceptable for human consumption. His group, Center for Food Safety, fights their growth all over the county. He feels that GMOs are “genetically engineered contamination” and that GMO farmers should “keep out”.
On the other side of the debate, people like Jackson County Farm Bureau President Ron Bjork believe that the importance of GMOs, in addition to scientific evidence that proves their safety, means that GMO farmers should not back down. Bjork says that there are nearly 3,000 acres of Jackson County farmland dedicated to GM crop, such as alfalfa and corn, and those farmers “aren’t going to leave”. Oregon Farm Bureau President Barry Bushue reinforced the opinion that these are necessary.
The ban won’t be truly effective until current lawsuits over its legality are resolved, which some say may happen by September. At that point, the cost of enforcing the law is estimated at $200,000 a year, on top of a potential $4.2 million taxpayers would supply to GMO farmers due to the ordinance qualifying as “regulatory taking” under the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, the rest of the West Coast sees its share of similar ordinances. Several counties (Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz, Trinity) and cities (Arcata, City of Point Arena) in California have outright banned cultivating, developing, or selling GMOs. The same can be said for San Juan County, Washington. Further west into the Pacific, Hawaii County, Hawaii has a ban very closely tied to Jackson County’s, in that it is currently tied up in litigation.
Other counties in California and Hawaii have potential GMO bans on the table right now. They are currently in proposal stages, awaiting further action.
For the most part, the federal government has remained neutral about the legality of genetically modified organisms, although the same can’t be said for its status on the labeling of said products. That is reflected in many states and municipalities, where GMO labeling is strongly advocated, once again mainly on the coasts.
In general, the regulation of GMOs is dependent on the nature of products, not the manner in which they are produced. As long as these products are safe for consumption, and scientific evidence suggests that they are, the federal government is favorable to their development.
The majority of the scientific community favors GMO growth and consumption. Organizations including the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the American Medical Association are in agreement on this matter.
Despite the backing of these scientific bodies, GMOs still don’t receive overwhelming public support. Research shows a nearly 51 percentage point gap between U.S. adults who perceive GMOs as safe to eat (37%) vs. AAAS scientists (88%).
It would seem that any food or product that is genetically modified faces a steep uphill battle when it comes to easing the fears of American citizens.
Municipal governments are more closely tied to the well-being of their constituents, thus they feel increased pressure to meet their health and safety requirements. This is the case even if that only applies to perceived safety.
The sense of responsibility fuels the desire to take specific actions. Some state and local governments have taken to enforcing labeling requirements on GMO products, such as Connecticut and Vermont. GMO labeling requirements are seen by their advocates as harmless in their intentions, only meaning to inform the consumer of what the product contains. Their critics see them as unnecessary and dangerous in their potential implication that genetically modified foods are deserving of such labels because they may be detrimental to one’s health.
The ambiguity of the labeling debate is one of numerous factors that has led to the decision of some governments to bypass giving the consumer the choice over whether to consume GMOs by opting for outright bans on them.
Debate over genetically modified foods is prevalent throughout the world, especially in Europe. The decision of many European countries to ban cultivation of GM crops (while continuing to allow their import from other countries) has less to do with GMOs and more to do with the polarizing public opinion of them. It would seem that European leaders, much like many U.S. leaders, are catering to the general public’s fears.
In Europe, and for many of these American municipalities, officials are pushing back against the increased production of genetically modified crops in any way possible. Cultivation bans, they feel, are the safest way to go about that. The issue we arrive at is that this is based on fear of the mode of production and not on the product’s characteristics or origin.
In Oregon, Jackson County officials have made it clear that battle lines have been drawn on the issue of biotechnology. This is evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of dollars that poured into the county leading up to last year’s vote and the passion in which the issue has been debated.
The nationwide debate is sure to play out for years to come, as the science behind genetically modified foods continues to shape our understanding of their potential impact and whether these bans on their development are unjustifiable or not.
Do you believe that consumers should have the right to choose consumption of GMO products?