Climate

This County In Oregon Completely Banned GMO Crops. Here’s Why That Matters For The Environment.

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On June 5, Oregon’s Jackson County became the newest county in the U.S. to have an active ban on the growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Genetically Engineered Plant Ordinance went into effect following the partial dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a group of noncommercial alfalfa farmers on May 29. The farmers sought to overturn the GMO ban, viewing the ordinance as a violation of their economic and legal rights.

The ordinance restricts the cultivation of GMO plants. Its activation — and the lawsuit’s partial dismissal — is good news for family farmers and environmental, health, and social justice activists, who pushed for the ban. The grassroots-level ballot measure cited the untested health effects of GMOs, the economic effects of mega-GMO seed companies on local organic farmers, and the unknown long-term environmental effects of GMOs as reasons to support the county-wide ban.

These largely unexplored long-term effects that GMOs may have on agricultural health and environmental well-being were among the greatest concerns raised by anti-GMO advocates and county ban supporters. GMOs are often paired with significant levels of herbicides and pesticides, which have been linked to soil damage and decreasing levels of soil fertility. Human health is also a concern with some of these pesticides and herbicides — the most popular pesticide in the U.S., Monsanto’s Roundup, has an active ingredient that “probably” causes cancer, according to the World Health Organization (a claim that Monsanto disputes).

Monsanto is responsible for the vast majority of GMO seed sales, allowing the company to create popular Roundup Ready seeds that resist the pesticide. This means that the pesticide can be liberally sprayed to exterminate weeds across fields while the crop survives. However, the more that Roundup is used, the more resistant weeds become to its chemicals. Some farmers worry that this may to the development of a pesticide-immune super weed and a greater level of codependence between farmers and pesticide producers.

Monsanto has vigorously denied claims of environmental harm from its pesticides, but environmentalists, health specialists, and farmers remain concerned.

“Unfortunately, we’re moving onto a pesticide treadmill as Roundup becomes less effective, leading to more super weeds and more reliance,” Friends of the Earth Food and Technology Program Director Lisa Archer told ThinkProgress. “GMOs are getting us addicted to more and more toxic pesticides which is taking us in the wrong direction.”

Archer also cited concerns with cross contamination of non-GMO crops with their genetically-engineered neighbors, which puts the authenticity of organic crops and organic farms in jeopardy.

“Another problem that probably drove this news in Oregon is this contamination of non-GMO crops which is a rampant problem through the contamination of wheat in the northwest,” Archer said. “This can cause a real problem for farmers who can lose their export market.”

Since the ban passed in 2014, the county has experienced no shortage of lawsuits from GMO-supporting businesses. Many of these big agriculture businesses have cited Oregon’s Right to Farm Act, which places limits on local government’s abilities to regulate farming practices and emphasizes the importance of utilizing open land.

Although the court has partially dismissed the first lawsuit brought by commercial alfalfa farmers, other cases brought by fiscally powerful companies hang in the balance.

Jackson follows in the footsteps of county-wide restrictions in neighboring states California and Washington, but the county may be the last in Oregon to pass an anti-GMO ordinance for the time being. Senate Bill 863 names the state as supreme regulator of seeds, thereby banning similar county legislation but excluding the Jackson County ban due to the time at which it was developed. This state-level regulation is nothing new — other states, including Georgia, Indiana, and New Jersey, also hold seed regulation tight to the state level.

Katelyn Harrop is an intern with ThinkProgress under the Center for American Progress.