County could ban modified crops

A few months after the discovery that genetically modified crops were being grown in the Rogue Valley, Jackson County officials have confirmed they have the authority to ban them.

Joel Benton, senior assistant county counsel for Jackson County, said counties that have banned the crops — also called GMO (genetically modified organisms) — across the U.S. often do so by defining them as noxious weeds. That makes their ordinance a county code enforcement issue.

Benton said the county also can criminalize growth of the plants, meaning police would handle the violations.

"It looks like 17 or 18 states have actually passed laws at the state level to say local governments don't have the authority to regulate GMOs," Benton said. "Oregon hasn't done that."

Benton, along with County Administrator Danny Jordan and the Board of Commissioners, discussed banning GMOs at a Thursday work session. Currently, the county's Natural Resource Advisory Committee is taking comments from GMO opponents and proponents.

"Then they'll formulate some sort of recommendation," said board Chairman Don Skundrick, adding the board will then take additional public comment on the issue before deciding whether to consider the ordinance.

The discussion follows a recent outcry from a local group of farmers — many of them organic farmers — and activists who say they have identified several fields of genetically modified plants within the area, including sugar beets and corn. The group, called GMO-Free Jackson County, requested earlier this month that the commissioners pass an ordinance banning the genetically altered crops.

Multinational corporation Syngenta AG confirmed it has been growing the crops in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass.

The crops are close to John Muir Middle School's Organic Garden and the Organic Village Farm in Ashland. Organic Village Farm owners have said the cross pollination means they have to stop production on chard and beets, as both can be corrupted by the GMO sugar beets.

Opponents say the GMO crops can cross pollinate with organic crops, corrupting the yield and possibly mutating them. Opponents also say there are potential GMO health hazards for those eating the crops, but the World Health Organization says GMO foods "currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health."

Proponents say the genetically engineered plants are easier to grow and can produce greater quantities because of their resistance to pests and weeds.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at

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