- by Rebekah Wilce, originally published in the June issue of The Progressive magazine.
Even though the state of Oregon enacted a law to override the ability of localities to regulate their own food systems, local ballot measures to ban GMO crops passed overwhelmingly in Jackson and Josephine Counties on May 20, according to news reports. "We fought the most powerful and influential chemical companies in the world and we won," Elise Higley, a local farmer with the anti-GMO group Our Family Farms Coalition, told The Oregonian. The Progressive magazine tells the backstory below and reveals that the preemption measure shares language with an ALEC model bill.
When the headline said that Oregon’s Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, had signed into law a corporate-backed bill overriding local counties’ ability to regulate their own food systems, Lisa Arkin was shocked.
“I can viscerally remember the day I looked at the headline,” she says. “It was such a deep feeling of disgust and disbelief. I couldn’t believe that any amount of money from outside corporations could convince our elected leaders in Oregon to abandon the democratic process in that way.”
Arkin is the executive director of a small nonprofit organization called Beyond Toxics that works to protect human health and the environment in Oregon by reducing the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides on farms, in forests, and along roadsides.
Arkin’s group sees every day the effects of herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup® glyphosate. Most genetically modified crops (GMOs) in the United States are engineered to withstand especially heavy application of this herbicide.
In a special session called for late September and early October 2013 to address Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System and education funding, legislators jammed through a bill that preempts Oregon counties from regulating their own agriculture and seeds.
The law, which Arkin and other critics call the “Monsanto Protection Act,” is eerily similar to a piece of “model” legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The new law and ALEC’s bill, entitled “Preemption of Local Agricultural Laws Act,” both contain this crucial passage: “A local government may not enact or enforce a . . . measure, including but not limited to an ordinance, regulation, control area or quarantine, to inhibit or prevent the production or use of agricultural seed, flower seed . . . or vegetable seed or products of agricultural seed, flower seed . . . or vegetable seed.”
The effort to block local democratic control of food issues in Oregon began after family farmers and sustainable food advocates in Jackson County gathered enough signatures in January 2013 to put a local GMO ban on the ballot in the spring of 2014.
“Our main goal is to protect family farmers and keep local family farmers sustainable in the Rogue Valley,” says Elise Higley, a Jackson County farmer and director of Our Family Farms Coalition. “Having the counties decide on our own is imperative because in every county the layout of the land is so different.”
“All of a sudden, there was tremendous activity in Salem,” says Oregon state Representative Peter Buckley (D-Ashland). Lobbying groups for agricultural interests, he added, “became very active. They immediately put a statewide preemption bill onto the legislative agenda.”
The “Monsanto Protection Act” was first introduced in February 2013 by state Senator Bill Hansell (R-Athena), along with a bipartisan group of legislators: state Senators Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg), Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay), Herman Baertschiger (R-Grants Pass), and Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose). Johnson later voted against the bill after protest from her constituents, saying she had “rarely heard from as many constituents as we did on this issue.”
John DiLorenzo is a lobbyist for the pesticide and GMO industry trade group Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which has ties to global giants like Monsanto and Syngenta. He reportedly took credit for having drafted the bill. He testified in support of it before the Senate Committee on Rural Communities and Economic Development in March 2013, recommending it as an extension of another ALEC bill: the “Right to Farm Act,” adopted in Oregon as the “Right to Farm and Forest Act.” The bill passed the Senate in May 2013, but stalled in the House before the end of the session in July.
Family farmers, consumers, and environmentalists thought they had put this one behind them. “There was this sense of victory when the bill ultimately died in the regular session,” says Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers, a local advocacy group that spearheaded opposition to the bill. “It was a big surprise when it came up out of the blue as part of a negotiated package of five bills in the special session in early October.”
At the time of ALEC’s fortieth Anniversary Annual Meeting in Chicago in August 2013, Oregon state Representative Sal Esquivel (R-Medford) and Jeff Case, senior director of government affairs at CropLife America, a national pesticide and GMO industry trade group, were the co-chairs of the Agriculture Subcommittee of ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. Case said he “couldn’t remember” who sponsored it, but it was “probably” one of the Oregon legislators.
The “Preemption of Local Agricultural Laws Act” became an official ALEC “model” bill to be taken to other states.
Meanwhile, in Oregon, state politicians were gearing up for a special session called by Governor Kitzhaber in order to come to a “grand bargain” on state pensions and education funding.
But a week before the official start of the session, Republican legislators seized on it as a way to do Monsanto a favor. Governor Kitzhaber acknowledged to The Oregonian that the GMO preemption bill had “nothing to do with the purposes for which I originally called the session” and that there was no “rational reason for it to be in” the bill package. But he added: “Apparently, the Republicans needed it to get enough votes.” He said he supported it because “it was the reality of the negotiating process."
Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers told The Oregonian that “the bill takes away the rights of local communities to set local food and agriculture policies. . . . This bill obviously came up as part of a backroom deal to move the larger package forward. That sort of political trading really isn’t the Oregon way. The governor and legislative leaders should be embarrassed.”
State Representative Buckley was surprised by the amount of lobbying on this. There were “remarkable displays of special interest power,” he says. “These guys came into the legislative process in a way that is rarely equaled in the state of Oregon. We are a small state. There was a lot of money put in, a lot of lobbying effort, far above what is regular procedure in our state, and they were able to force the issue to the top of the agenda for our state.”
Oregonians for Food and Shelter spent more than $200,000 lobbying the Oregon state legislature in 2013, and the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation spent well over $150,000, according to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.
Governor Kitzhaber signed the preemption bill into law on October 8, 2013, and because the bill also declared an “emergency,” the law went into effect immediately.
In last-minute negotiations, Buckley was able to insert an exemption into the bill for his district, Jackson County, so that its ballot initiative to ban the growth of GMOs in the region remains on the ballot later this spring. All six of the world’s biggest pesticide and GMO companies—BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta—donated $455,000 to the effort to overturn the ballot initiative. Buckley said it was “more than eight times more” than any other county ballot measure has ever received.
“As more money is flooding in from out-of-state,” says Higley of Our Family Farms Coalition, “residents of the county are getting really activated to educate themselves, and getting so frustrated that they’re actually getting more involved in the campaign.”
Josephine County will also vote on a similar measure this spring, in defiance of the preemption law. But in general, counties’ efforts to exercise their rights to create or maintain a viable food system appropriate for their own region were preempted by the special interests behind this state law.
Oregon is a “home rule” state: A 1958 amendment to the state constitution allows counties to adopt charters and a 1973 state law granted the same authority to non-chartered as well as chartered counties. The national Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations says that Oregon county governments have the highest degree of local discretionary authority of any state in the nation, according to the Oregon Secretary of State.
Opponents of preemption like Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers saw the “Monsanto Protection Act” as a removal of local democratic decision-making that is guaranteed by the state constitution.
In response, Lane and Benton Counties are working to pass “community rights” ordinances instead of straight GMO bans.
Both Lane and Benton Counties are in the Willamette Valley, an area of deep and fertile agricultural soil surrounded by tall mountain ranges to the east, west, and south. Its richness and geographic isolation make it an ideal area for growing organic and heirloom seed varieties for use by family farms and gardens across the country.
But the area also grows the vast majority of the sugar beet seed for the country, and as of 2010, 95 percent of sugar beets grown in the United States are GMOs engineered to be resistant to heavy applications of Monsanto’s Roundup® glyphosate. Beets can cross with other beets as well as Swiss chard, interfering with the specialty seed farms.
So in Benton County, as in Lane County, local citizens have filed an initiative that “establishes certain rights to a local food system while banning GMO agriculture,” according to attorney Ann Kneeland, who is working with both counties to get their ordinances on the ballot. The initiative, she says, would “prevent corporations from eviscerating local law-making.” Their commercial rights should not trump “the community’s right to protect residents’ health, safety, and welfare,” she says.
As Kai Huschke, a local organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, notes, “We don’t really have a food issue problem as much as we have a democracy problem.”
More on this story and related news on corporate control of our democracy and our dinner plates is available at progressive.org, prwatch.org, radioproject.org, and fooddemocracynow.org, in a collaborative reporting effort made possible in part by a grant from the Voqal Fund. John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, which is now part of the Progressive, Inc., is on the board of advisors of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Rebekah Wilce is on the board of directors of Family Farm Defenders, which is unrelated to Friends of Family Farmers but works on similar issues, including local control of food systems. She is the project director of The Progressive, Inc.
This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of The Progressive magazine.