What better timing than our annual Restaurant Guide to check in on the battle over so-called Genetically Modified Organisms. Currently, there is a heated battle in Southern Oregon about banning GMOs—a fight that will affect Central Oregon farmers and foodies, and that may determine whether the entire state will ban GMOs.
The concerns over GMOs address so many different topics. Farmers are concerned, because GMOs are designed to withstand heavy-duty herbicides and insecticides, that, in turn, lead to strong weeds and insects with heightened resistance, and an escalating war of one-upping between the chemicals and crops. On the health front, GMOs are designed to produce big and bulk, often trading off nutritional value. And on the financial angle, they pull money toward the agriculture giants, like Monsanto, while hurting local farmers who favor organic and low-impact farming.
European nations have led the way toward regulating GMOs; in March, France's agriculture ministry banned the cultivation and sale of genetically modified corn, and is lobbying the rest of the European Union to follow suit. China, Japan and Chile already have bans in place.
Yet banning GMOs in the United States has been an uphill battle. In 2002, Oregon attempted to become the first state to do so. But that voter initiative was crushed with a 71 to 29 percent vote, largely because agribusiness corporations poured in $5.5 million to defeat the message that GMOs have health and environmental concerns—an amount of money that dwarfs what's usually spent on ballot initiatives in Oregon.
In the decade since, opinions about food have shifted radically; yet, even as feelings about eating healthy and locally-produced food have spread, GMOs have outpaced those attitudes. Nationwide, 73 percent of corn and 87 percent of cotton come from genetically engineered seeds.
Meanwhile, farmers and food nutritionists have continued to try to ban GMOs, but they have done so with little luck. In 2004, the rural northern California coast municipality of Mendocino County passed Measure H, the first GMO ban in the country. Marin County, adjacent to San Francisco and a large producer of organic produce, followed suit with a voter initiative, and the Board of Supervisors in Santa Cruz unanimously banned them. Even so, in 2012, a statewide voter initiative in California failed, with 53 versus 47 of voters opposing the measure. Again, in that campaign, companies like Monsanto and The Hershey Company contributed more than $44 million to quash the initiative. (Supporters spent nearly $8 million.)
But victory seems to be inching ever closer: A year ago, Washington failed to pass a GMO ban, but the defeat was by a mere two percentage points, in spite of agriculture companies spending $33 million (compared to proponents' $8 million).
Enter: Ashland and the largely rural Jackson County. In the upcoming May elections, Jackson County will decide whether to pass a pioneering initiative banning GMOs in Southern Oregon.
At this point, it is really a toss-up which side will win. Once again, proponents for a GMO ban are outgunned financially. Along with Syngenta and Dupont, Monsanto has poured in almost $1 million to defeat the measure—almost $10 for every voter in the county. Proponents have raised one-fifth that amount, including more than half from a single contributor, Dr. Bronner's, also an out-of-state corporation.
But this may be one of those David versus Goliath victories: In spite of the lopsided spending to defeat the GMO ban, it very much has a chance to win. The grassroots campaign has been ambitious, and thousands of lawn signs are lining streets in the region.
This could very well be the tipping point—and, with Oregon most likely considering a statewide voter initiative in November to ban GMOs, it's an opportunity for our state to be a pioneer on an environmental and health issue.
What can you do? Call your friends in Jackson County. Contribute money to counterbalance the agriculture giants. A victory here is an important step toward environmental and financial sustainability in our state.