Pro and Con: Local GMO Ban on May Ballot

By Bethany Carlson, Rachel Sandstrom, and Rob Goffins

So, what does local GMO measure 2-89 do? What are the pros and cons?

Ballots will be mailed April 30, and due back on May 19. Measure 2-89 mandates that all genetically modified organisms in Benton County be harvested, removed, or destroyed within 90 days if it passes; it makes use of these organisms illegal after that. The measure envisions  an enforcement regime decided by county supervisors, as well as standing for individual residents to bring legal actions.

Also envisioned is that the measure would supersede any state or federal laws it may conflict with, including patent laws—it seeks to shift strict liability and costs for removal to patent holders.

Large parts of this measure may turn out to be unenforceable. Regardless of that, one would most likely vote yes if they agree with the basic premise here—the lawyers can argue about the rest.

More concerning is the scale of this measure. Some supporters deny that it would kill broad swaths of medical and agro research at OSU, but a read of the measure makes clear that it could, whether intended or not. Beyond this, the measure does not consider the full landscape of genetically engineered organisms in medical treatment and research, or for that matter that their use in crops could become positive at some future point—a solid case could be made for voting against this measure.

That said, species adaptation ameliorates present claims favoring genetically engineered crops and seed drift can and does contaminate neighboring farms, rendering those crops—as in the case of Eastern Oregon wheat in 2013—unmarketable. There are potential environmental and human health concerns, as research has been broadly inadequate.

On balance, a reasonable case can be made for a yes vote on Measure 2-89. Federal and state governments have had two decades to respond on this issue, but have only met it with increasing paralysis and apathy.

Farmers’ Case for Local Food Measure

“We had tried every other avenue to protect our seed from contamination by GMOs,” said Dana Allen, co-author of Measure 2-89. Allen explained that farmers in Benton County work together to coordinate a map of plants that are likely to cross-pollinate, but that GMO crops can’t co-exist. “Syngenta walked out of the talks about sugar beets in Southern Oregon,” she continued. “The farmers there already know that you can’t co-exist. We felt that we had to ban the planting of GMOs and patented seeds to protect our food system—we have a really vibrant local farming system that provides a lot of food for Benton County and to surrounding areas.”

The Willamette Valley is one of the best places in the world to grow a large variety of garden seed crops. “We grow probably 90% of the table beet seed around the world,” said Allen. Yet, “We’ve got some farmers that don’t plant corn anymore because they know there are other farmers close to them who are planting corn that’s a GMO commodity crop.” Organic farmers are at obvious risk for this contamination: organic standards prohibit GMO crops, and seed companies often find GMO contamination in supposedly non-GM crops. But conventional farmers are affected, too; the 2013 GMO wheat found in Eastern Oregon is a case in point—foreign markets halted shipments from conventional and organic farmers alike. “The last thing we want is to have farmers fighting with farmers,” said Allen, who added that one of the petition organizers is a fifth-generation conventional farmer. After the 90-day waiting period and subsequent removal of all GMO crops, the ordinance states that it is the patent-holder, not the farmer, who will be sued if GMO crops are found growing in Benton County. “We did not want farmers being sued, because the harm is coming from the companies that are patenting and selling these seeds under contract, not the farmers who are forced into this.”

When asked about growers of GMO crops who say they will lose money, Allen mentioned the GM wheat escapee, which prompted many foreign wheat markets to halt imports of Oregon wheat, and said, “That completely destroyed the market. The fear of contamination by our export markets is intense.” She continued, “You have to make a choice—who is the transgressor here? Who deserves the right to plant? To me it is unconscionable that a neighbor can contaminate another neighbor.”

Some scientists have raised questions on the safety studies that have been conducted on GMOs, with some claiming that many of the studies that seem to show safety have been funded by the very bioengineering companies that stand to benefit from GMO crop sales. Allen doesn’t see the health questions of GMOs as being the main issue for Measure 2-89, but rather cross-contamination and community rights.

Pesticide Resistance on the Rise

While the health risks or lack thereof of GMOs may be debatable, pesticide use and pesticide resistance seem to be a clear-cut strike against them. July 2014 news out of Brazil, published in the Scientific American, tells of farmers finding that insects have become resistant to the GMO corn which is supposed to produce the Bt-toxin which would normally kill them. Earlier this month, the EPA looked to set limits on the amount of Bt corn which US growers could plant, citing concerns of increased pesticide use to combat the Bt-resistant corn rootworms. The USDA estimates that 80% of corn planted in the US is now genetically engineered to resist pests via the Bt toxin.

While there were early claims that GMO crops could reduce pesticide use, research by Washington State University professor Charles Benbrook in 2012 found the opposite. There was a decrease in pesticide use from 1996 to 2001, linked to the traits in main GMO crops. But subsequent years have seen larger increases in rates of pesticide application, translating to a 7% increase in overall pesticide use.

Glyphosate or Roundup, which the study claims probably has less harmful health and environmental effects than other pesticides, has been the main herbicide that GM crops have been engineered to resist. Roundup Ready crops are not killed by applications of the herbicide, while weeds theoretically are. But, like the corn rootworm, some weeds have become resistant to Roundup. “Glyphosate resistant weeds were practically unknown before the introduction of [Roundup Ready] crops in 1996,” Benbrook wrote; there are now 22 resistant species of weeds, affecting an estimated 50 million acres. The resistance has led farmers to a variety of coping mechanisms including increased herbicide use, manual weeding, and a larger variety of herbicides.

Dow AgroSciences, in a 2012 press release aimed at opponents of its “technology package” of corn resistant to the pesticide 2, 4-D, is ready to move in on the market: “Farm herbicide use has been steadily increasing for a number of years, and that increase is going to get worse without new agricultural technology like our herbicide-tolerant corn to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds.” They add blithely that “Rates of herbicide application per acre of corn will not increase with our new technology package.” Nevertheless, 2, 4-D resistant weeds have already been documented.

Studying GMO Safety Studies, Why You Should Worry

Wading into the debate about GMO safety requires the reader to either slog through hundreds of studies, refutations, and meta-analyses, or throw one’s hands in the air and default to one’s original belief about the subject. Studies abound, but in many cases there is a conflict of interest; a 2011 examination of 94 studies found that while there was no correlation between industry funding and a favorable study outcome, there was a very significant correlation between a favorable outcome and one or more of the study authors having a conflict of interest (p < .001, for the statisticians out there).

Additionally, nearly half of the studies did not disclose their source of funding. This professional conflict of interest has been documented by other researchers as being strongly related to positive outcomes of biomedical and nutritional studies. On the other hand, only a total of 12 of the studies did have a negative outcome. These negative outcomes have included a list of dramatic health problems in the test animals: stomach lesions, tumors, reproductive issues, and others.

But in many cases there is scientific debate over the studies. Were there enough test subjects? Was there a statistical difference between the health effects on the control group and the animals fed the GMO crop? Some scientists express concerns that the genes in GMOs, some of which are from organisms that a human would never eat (such as the Bt bacteria), may cause an increase in food allergies. Other authors note that livestock have been fed a GMO diet of corn and soy for almost 20 years and there has been no corresponding surge in health problems among livestock. Some genetic modification is doubtless completely innocuous; more precise modifications for flavor or other characteristics do exist, although they are far outnumbered by modifications for pesticide or disease resistance.

Lack of Long-Term Studies

The Public Health Association of Australia and the British Medical Association express concerns that the safety of GMOs has not been satisfactorily demonstrated by long-term studies, with PHAA adding that many animal feeding studies have lasted for only a few weeks, and some have only evaluated animal production characteristics such as weight or milk production. Pro-GMO authors often paint detractors as anti-progress nuts whose paranoia and acceptance of “bad science” reaches a religious fervor. While this is true of some, the anti-science label is used too widely.

This, unlike the debate over vaccines or global warming, is one where the dangers of taking a cautious approach are nil: it’s a case of “better safe than sorry” with no downside for the “safe” choice. No one will be worse off than they were before the advent of GMOs if they simply abstain. Of course, without a labeling law, abstaining isn’t easy.

Unintended Consequences for OSU Research, Strongest Case Against Measure

Measure 2-89 would apply to all of Benton County, and that includes Oregon State University. As a land grant college and research institution, OSU has a lot at stake. If adopted, this measure would essentially halt much of the research conducted at Oregon State, from agriculture to medical.

The measure bans the planting of genetically modified organisms and calls for the destruction of such materials, likely including materials used for research purposes. If 2-89 applies to research, OSU would be required to destroy research materials that have been used for decades, and the viability of research would be significantly harmed.

Despite numerous rewrites of the measure to prevent research from being affected by the measure, Steve Clark, vice president of University Relations at OSU, and university faculty continue to lack confidence in the scope of the ballot measure—they fear that it “further opens the door to the implication that OSU research is subject to the law.” While the university, as a state-funded institution, cannot express an opinion on any pending legislation, they can analyze the potential effects, which is what Clark and university staff have done.

OSU research is active in many fields, from medical to agricultural, and many projects rely on GMOs. Currently, OSU is developing human disease therapy treatments for ALS. This research also involves ways to treat or prevent some types of cancer. GMOs are utilized fairly extensively in this research, and in the agricultural/horticultural research of filberts (hazelnuts). Researchers are working on preventing the effects of the Eastern filbert blight. Oregon is by far one of the most prolific producers of filberts, and the research being conducted will help to limit the effects of the blight, securing income, jobs, and delicious hazelnuts for a ton of people.

Research is also being conducted to prevent insects that are harmful to crops from reproducing. Instead of killing the insect or pest or spraying produce with harmful pesticides, this research attempts to prevent reproduction of the insects, which is a safer way to cultivate produce and other crops.

In terms of financial impact, more than 120 faculty in multiple colleges would be affected. Research valued at $18.3 million would be stopped and destroyed; 300 to 400 students, both undergraduate and graduate, would be affected in education or research. People would likely lose their jobs, education would be compromised. Researchers may be hired on to new projects, but if their research ends, it could impact their employment in that activity.

More importantly, OSU is in the middle of important research that could help a lot of people. From curing diseases to cultivating better produce and reducing the use of pesticides, OSU is trying to do a lot of good through the use of GMO. In reading Measure 2-89, it does not offer research exemptions, and short of a successful legal challenge, it would almost certainly end this sort of work at the university.Φ

References: Charles M. Benbrook, “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the US—the first 16 years.” Published in Environmental Sciences Europe, 2012.

This article appeared in The Corvallis Advocate on April 24, 2015. The Corvallis Advocate is a synapse and resting spot at that Corvallis intersection where science, art and manifold subculture meet – an alternative newsweekly privately held by Corvallis people aiming for the highest good of the community.

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