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Oregon Seed Policy Dispute Sprouts Up on Special Session Agenda

The state, not a patchwork of local voters, should regulate seed, according to the Oregon Farm Bureau (OFB). The bureau’s policy was turned into Senate Bill 633 during the last session of the Oregon Legislature, but it did not get a vote in the House.

Now, SB 633 is back as part of the special session set to get under way Monday in Salem. Along with public employee pensions and taxes, the bill to prevent local governments or local voters from banning farm practices is on the special-session agenda.

The agreement between legislative leaders and Gov. John Kitzhaber calls for the special session to pass a package of a half-dozen bills, and, if they all don’t make it, the Democratic governor will veto the ones that do.

Now, however, the same groups that blocked SB 633 in the Oregon House by calling it “Oregon’s Monsanto Protection Act” are pressuring liberal Democrats, mostly from the Portland and Eugene areas, against including it in the larger pension/tax deal. Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, is circulating a petition asking that the farm bill be removed from the special-session package.

One of the opponent groups, Friends of Family Farmers, says that state jurisdiction of seed policy would be “a direct affront to Oregon’s respected organic and natural food trade sector….” It notes that Oregon is fifth in organic farms in the U.S., with 156,000 acres as of 2010, and the more than 444 certified organic farms in the state are threatened with serious economic losses from contamination from genetically engineered crops.

SB 633 would prohibit any local laws or regulations governing the display, distribution, growing, harvesting, labeling, marketing, mixing, notification of use, planting, possession, processing, registration, storage, transportation or use of agricultural seeds or products of those seeds, including finished crops, trees or food.

Oregon has an evenly split state House of Representatives, and one Republican legislative staffer told Food Safety News that it is going to be a reach for the Farm Bureau to get the necessary votes on SB 633 with groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters stirring up the other side.

OFB says it values all types of farming practices and technologies, but does not want one elevated at the expense of the other, and certainly not by local governments. And it says it makes no sense to have Oregon farms fall under as many as 400 jurisdictions.

Public hearings on the package of special-session bills are being held today and Friday in Salem, and the full House and Senate will be gaveled to order on Monday. Legislators will then take up Oregon’s shaky public-employee pension system and a $244-million tax package.

If the new version of SB 633 is voted on during the special session, it would grandfather in Jackson County, which has already banned GM seeds and crops.

Nationally, farmers planting genetically modified seeds approved for commercial use by USDA are losing an immunity they temporarily had from certain federal court actions. Known as the Farmer Assurance Provision by supporters and the “Monsanto Protection Act” by opponents, a federal budget provision since March has protected GM crops from being torn up in the same season if a federal judge found they were creating some sort of damage.  The Senate has now removed this proviso, much to the delight of the anti-Monsanto side.

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