Benton County Voters Will Decide On GE Crop Ban Next Year

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown sounded the final knockout bell for Measure 92 this week when she certified the defeat of the state initiative to require labeling of genetically engineered foods. But a group of advocates in one Oregon county isn't giving up just yet.

In Benton County, a group called Benton Food Freedom filed signatures this week for a May 2015 ballot measure that would ban genetically engineered crops in the county, according to the Corvallis Advocate.

Benton County Supervisor of Elections Jeff Doty confirmed Friday that the measure will appear on the May ballot. He said the group had enough signatures to "easily qualify," and the measure is now awaiting a number.

And it might just pass: Secretary of State's office records show 52 percent of Benton County voters supported Measure 92.

Benton Food Freedom's pursuit of the ban comes even though it would run head-on into a state law passed in 2013 that prohibits such action at the county level.

"We're very confident that we can defend this once we pass it," said Corvallis resident Vernon Huffman, a field manager for Benton Food Freedom.

The group is already gearing up for legal wrangling with the state. They're working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that provides low-cost legal services and advocates for "community rights" on environmental issues like hydraulic fracturing, mining and agriculture.

"The basic scenario is that communities are caught in a situation now where they are being kept out of big decisions," said Kai Huschke, community organizer for CELDF. "This is a proposition for the people of Benton County, not the state or corporations."

Huschke said the legal argument for Benton's ban would look something like this: Local governments have a constitutional right to create laws with tighter restrictions than what's mandated at the state or federal levels. 

It's an approach to genetically engineered crop bans that hasn't been tested fully anywhere else in the country yet, though CELDF has assisted about 160 communities in adopting similar laws on other environmental issues, according to Huschke.

Huschke said CELDF had wanted to try this approach in Hawaii, where three counties were trying to defend laws against genetically engineered crops there, but those counties eventually opted out of CELDF's approach. Federal judges struck down two of those efforts so far, and Huschke expects the third to go down as well.

Supporters of genetically engineered crops say they're keeping an eye on the Benton County effort. Scott Dahlman, executive director of advocacy group Oregonians for Food and Shelter, called the measure more "extreme" than similar bans that passed in Jackson and Josephine counties.

"Once Benton County residents have a chance to understand what's in this measure, they'll reject it," Dahlman said. "It's unfortunate that taxpayers have to pay for this to go to the ballot."

With lawsuits pending over Jackson County's ban, and Measure 92 being the most expensive ballot measure campaign in history, Benton County may be primed to be another high-dollar battle in Oregon's ongoing debate over GE foods.

But Huschke and Dahlman both say biotech companies will only pour money into Benton County if they feel like it poses a threat to their business.

"Right now, the Benton folks are gearing up for full campaign mode," said Huschke. "If the voters say yes, then we have to wait to see what happens with the legal system."

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