Proposal in Oregon Would Allow Farmers to Sue GMO Patent Holders for Contamination

Genetically modified wheat was found in Oregon in 2013, causing other countries to cancel export contracts for fear of contamination.

Genetically modified wheat was found in Oregon in 2013, causing other countries to cancel export contracts for fear of contamination. Shutterstock

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So-called "GMO contamination" occurs when genetically modified plants come into contact with non-GMO or organic crops, usually through cross-pollination.

A bill under consideration in the Oregon Legislative Assembly would allow farmers to sue companies that hold patents on genetically engineered seeds if the plants that grow from those seeds contaminate other crops.

So-called “GMO contamination” occurs when genetically modified plants come into contact with non-GMO or organic crops via cross-pollination (when pollen from one field drifts to another, transported by wind or by pollinators like bees and birds) or through seed or grain mixing after harvest. That contamination is a problem for organic farmers, who must adhere to strict standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to sell their crops. There are currently no programs in place to compensate them for financial losses in the event of contamination, even if it occurs through no fault of their own.

House Bill 2882 would change that, allowing landowners or renters to seek three times the economic damages caused by the unauthorized presence of GMOs on the land. It also allows residents to sue if genetically engineered plants are found on public land and the jurisdiction's governing body declines to bring charges. In both cases, the plaintiff may also seek reimbursement of court and attorney fees.

A proposed amendment adds another step, requiring that the state Department of Agriculture establish practices that GMO growers can take to reduce the risk of contamination. Under that amendment, if a grower is sued as a result of contamination, the court would have to consider how well he or she complied with those rules to determine “whether the activities of the grower unreasonably created a foreseeable risk.”

Genetically modified crops have been found growing unauthorized in Oregon before, most notably in 2013, when a farmer discovered pesticide-resistant wheat growing in one of his fields. Genetically engineered wheat is not approved for sale anywhere in the world, so the appearance of this strain caused other countries to cancel export contracts with American farmers for fear of contamination.

Proponents of the bill praised the measure as a viable way to protect Oregon’s organic farmers and its multi-million dollar seed-growing industry, which relies heavily on exports. Contamination threatens that livelihood because many countries outside of the United States have banned the sale of genetically engineered food, wrote Stacy Ann Kraker, president of the nonprofit Oregon Organic Coalition.

“Over the past decade, [genetically engineered] contamination events, and threats of contamination, have cost farmers billions of dollars—including Oregon farmers—in rejected sales, lost exports and closed agricultural markets,” she said in written testimony to the House Committee on Rules. “Unwanted transgenic contamination is a very real issue for Oregon farmers and the burden is particularly impactful for those who utilize organic practices.”

Opponents of the measure have argued that its passage would stifle innovation in the agricultural sector while pitting different types of farmers against each other.

“Because of Oregon’s wonderful agricultural diversity—both in crops and growing methods—coexistence is key,” wrote Katie Fast, executive director of Oregonians for Food & Shelter. “Oregon farmers have worked with their neighbors for over 100 years managing coexistence conflicts. This bill flies in the face of that work by picking ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’”

Lawmakers heard comments on the bill at a public hearing last week and had scheduled a possible work session on the legislation for Monday but did not take it up. The legislation now awaits a vote from the rules committee.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C

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