Benton County’s Fight to Protect Our Seed Heritage: A Food Bill of Rights
by: Benton County Community Rights Coalition Posted on: January 27, 2013
Photo: Bruce Bittle
By Clinton Lindsey, a 5th-generation farmer and local food advocate from Corvallis, Oregon. He currently works for Greenwillow Grains, an organic grain mill. He also is board president at Ten Rivers Food Web, a non-profit dedicated to enhancing the local food system of the mid-Willamette Valley. Clint is a co-founder and steering committee member of Benton County Community Rights Coalition.
Editor’s Note: Benton County, Oregon grows seed (including wheat seed) for national and international markets. That seed is being threatened by Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) agriculture. Below we hear from a Benton County farmer about the ramifications of GMO agriculture and what the Benton County Community Rights Coalition is doing to elevate the community’s right to a sustainable food system, seed heritage, and the inalienable rights of nature over corporate “rights” and state preemption in their county. Our previous article “Fighting for the Right to a Sustainable Food System: Benton County, Oregon” complements this piece.
Benton County is in the heart of the Willamette Valley – a lush, fertile valley in western Oregon. Here in the Willamette Valley we are blessed with a climate that allows us to grow over 270 varieties of edible plants. Wheat, hazelnuts, wine grapes, cherries, apples, peppermint, hops, beans, corn, peas, oats, flax, potatoes, and many, many more are all found here. The consumer base that supports this abundance is one of the most educated and involved in the whole country. CSA (community supported agriculture) programs, farmer’s markets, and food co-ops all thrive here and are found in most communities. We have a robust and growing organic industry. This all makes up a vibrant local food system that many farmers and citizens have spent their lives building. Farmers have been growing food in this valley for over 160 years.
This system is now under attack from corporate agricultural interests who seek to turn our valley into a breeding ground for their patented seeds, and the chemicals that go with them. A conflict is growing between the farmers, both organic AND conventional, who seek to grow crops uncontaminated by genetically modified seeds, and the massive and well-funded biotech industry and their associated organizations and growers, of which Monsanto is the best known. At the heart of this farm and food system conflict in the Willamette Valley is the question of who owns the seed, and thus, who controls the landscape of agriculture. However, even more fundamental to this fight is the structure of law that elevates corporations’ “rights” above those of we the people. This farming crisis has shown us in Benton County that what we are really facing is a democracy crisis.
Our valley is one of the very few places in the world that can grow a wide variety of vegetable seeds for the international market. Consequently there are a large number of people whose livelihoods are at stake in the decision to open our valley up to more Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) agriculture. GM sugar beets were introduced to the valley in 2006, and within 3 years they had all but taken over the entire market. This created deep divides in the specialty seed industry. Both organic and conventional beet growers do not want GM beets in the valley, for fear that the GM crop will contaminate their crops and thus shut them out of lucrative overseas markets like Japan and the EU, neither of which permit GMO seeds to be imported. The GM sugar beet growers feel they need the GMO technology to compete. GM alfalfa has been introduced to Oregon with severe consequences for the organic dairy industry and its farmers. Our organic dairies are now forced to test their alfalfa seed for contamination from cross-pollination with GM alfalfa before planting and feeding it to their animals.
Both of these threats pale next to the potential threat of GM wheat, which is now being tested in the valley for commercial release. Wheat is the major food crop of the world, and if the wheat industry in the northwest comes to be dominated by GM crops to the degree that the sugar beet industry has, then the food system we have worked hard to build will be devastated. The local food system will be undermined by the biotech industry. GM crops bring with them not just the threat of contamination; there are associated legal risks. If a farmer is knowingly or even unknowingly contaminated by a patented GM seed, his or her crop is then the intellectual property of the biotech firm that owns the patent. The farmer would be committing a crime were he or she to save the contaminated seed to plant again, even if they don’t know it was contaminated. This opens the farmer up to a host of legal troubles, which they often do not have time or money to deal with. These biotech firms have shown that they will aggressively pursue litigation against farmers who have violated their patents, often to the financial ruin of the farmer.
It was with these concerns in mind that a group of farmers, food activists, and regular citizens met on March 10th, 2012 at First Alternative Food Co-op in Corvallis to hear Paul Cienfuegos speak about the threat of GMO agriculture and a new way that we the people can potentially stop it. Paul is an activist from California who recently relocated to Portland. He spoke of a rights-based approach to activism; that is, using the inalienable right of the people to self-governance to address concerns that threaten our way of life. Instead of “playing their game” as he put it, and endlessly petitioning state authorities and regulators to protect our interests over corporate interests, we should draft local ordinances that invoke the statement that all rights are inherent in the people, and that these rights are superior to corporations’ “rights”. What this means is that to give a law teeth, we need to strip corporations of their rights and remove their ability to challenge our ordinance based on mechanisms like the interstate commerce clause of the constitution and state preemption.
During the meeting a signup list went around asking anyone interested in forming a group to work on these issues to stay in contact. Very shortly thereafter a small group of folks started meeting every Monday to work on an ordinance for Benton County that would effectively ban GMO agriculture and remove the rights of corporations that conflict with the enforceability of the ordinance. This group initially called itself “GMO-Free Benton County.” This group then held a meeting at the Mary’s River Grange near Philomath in April of 2012 again with Paul Cienfuegos as a speaker. More support was gathered and more members joined the group. A short time later the group decided to change their name to Benton County Community Rights Coalition. It was felt that the rights-based work had a broader focus than just the anti-GMO issue and the name needed to reflect that. Once this was done, work on the ordinance began in earnest. With the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), the ordinance began to take shape. After 6 months of hard work on the minutiae of the wording, the first draft of the ordinance was complete.
Key language in the Ordinance includes:
“a) Right to Sustainable Food Systems: All residents of Benton County possess the fundamental and inalienable right to access, use, consume, produce, harvest, collect, process, and distribute foods generated from sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems. This right shall include the right to be free from unsustainable food systems and unsustainable agricultural practices, which interfere with the right of Benton County residents to a sustainable food system.
b) Right to Seed Heritage: All residents of Benton County possess the inalienable right to save, preserve, protect, collect, harvest, and distribute all seeds grown within Benton County as essential to maintaining a sustainable food system. This includes, but is not limited to, the right to be free from infection, infestation, or drift by any means from genetically engineered life forms or genetically modified organisms.”
The ordinance in its entirety can be found here on bentonccrc.org.
The ordinance was submitted to the county elections office with an eye to making the May 2013 ballot. An issue arose when the county ruled that the ordinance did not abide by the single-issue requirement. We had anticipated the single-issue requirement and had constructed the ordinance so that everything in the document related to the single issue of our right to a sustainable food system. We filed a motion to overturn the county’s decision and we are currently awaiting the judge’s ruling. The county felt that by including the anti-corporate personhood language we were straying outside the single-issue requirement. Our feeling is that this language is key to making our ordinance enforceable and protecting our right to a sustainable food system. What is to stop Monsanto et al from filing a lawsuit in state or federal court against our ordinance if we don’t remove their right to do so? At stake is the public’s ability to decide for themselves what they want their county food system to look like. This issue is a key example of the conflict between the rights of the people and the artificial “rights” exercised by corporations over the last 150 years. This country was founded on the principle that all rights are inherent in the people, and all other entities, government, corporate, and so on, are subordinate.
WE SEEK THE ABILITY TO DECIDE FOR OURSELVES WHAT WE THINK OUR FOOD SYSTEM SHOULD LOOK LIKE.
We want to put it to the citizens of Benton County to vote on if they think the food system should allow GM seeds owned by corporations who contaminate other growers and sue those who don’t pay their fees, or if they want to ban this dangerous and threatening practice from our county. We want to do so in a way that removes the right of corporations and state and federal authorities to usurp our citizens’ decision should it pass.
This raises the question – Why the rights-based approach? Why not simply try to pass a county-wide ban on GMO agriculture? The reason behind this is to provide our ordinance with a solid and enforceable platform. Corporations have at their disposal many tools to combat local ordinances that threaten their business practices. Among these are the often-invoked Interstate Commerce Clause of the US Constitution and Dillon’s Rule. It is extremely difficult to pass local laws that are free from the threat of being overturned by state and federal authorities on the grounds that state and federal legislative authority is preeminent. Despite the supremacy of federal and state government, it is clearly written in both the US and Oregon Constitutions that “All power is inherent in the people.” If all power is inherent in the people, then we must use that power to protect our way of life when threatened by forces claiming to possess “rights” that supersede our own.
One recent example of the imbalance in power with respect to decision-making is the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) canola rule adjustment. The director of the ODA, Katy Coba, holds the power to unilaterally change the rule. This would have devastating and far-reaching effects on agriculture in the Willamette Valley, namely by allowing the spread of a plant who’s seed is heavily contaminated by genetically engineered traits and which is a noxious weed that would threaten the very existence of a large group of specialty seed growers. This is precisely the sort of top-down structure that a rights-based effort aims to change.
What is Benton County Community Rights Coalition trying to do about this issue?
BCCRC has drafted, as stated above, a Food Bill of Rights. This ordinance contains within it provisions banning GMO agriculture and removing the rights of corporations to challenge our ordinance should it be adopted by the county. We are deeply concerned about the push by farmers in our valley to adopt more GMO technology, and we feel now is the time to stop it. We are receiving opposition from groups funded by the biotech industry, and they have even sought to label us as “sovereign-citizen extremists” and “domestic terrorists.” Apparently seeking to assert the right of the people to decide what their food system should look like is considered an act of terror to some.
Section I of the Oregon Constitution states, “We declare that all men, when they form a social compact are equal in right: that all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; and they have at all times a right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.”
What is a Food Bill of Rights?
A food bill of rights is the statement that all people possess the inalienable right to a sustainable food system and seed heritage. A sustainable food system is one free from practices and substances that harm the soil, air, water, plants, animals, and people that depend on it. This sustainable system allows the co-existence of the plants, animals, and people through responsible stewardship of our natural resources. Practices that embrace the use of genetically engineered life forms which are “owned” by a corporate entity are inherently dangerous to a sustainable system because they promote dependence on the corporation supplying the seed, and the associated chemicals to treat the fields in which the transgenic seed is planted. A truly sustainable food system would have no such dependency. GMO agriculture is a fundamentally unsustainable practice, and would be categorically banned should our food bill of rights be adopted by the citizens of Benton County.
What is seed heritage? Why is it important to a sustainable food system?
Seed heritage is the right of the people to save, plant, keep, trade, or otherwise use seeds grown and developed over generations. This is at the core of a sustainable food system. If our right to save seed is taken away, all the other elements of our sustainable food system will crumble, as biotech firms will control the seed and have ultimate say in how we grow and manage our food. If patented seed (GMOs) were to be grown here, the companies that hold the patents will be able to determine how the seed is handled, and by whom, and they require growers to buy seed each and every year. Saving seed is illegal when you grow GMO crops. This, along with the biotech firms’ aggressive litigation and threat of litigation against farmers, is a barrier to a sustainable food system. Farmers have saved seed for millennia. Are we to take the means to grow our food out of the farmer’s hands and put it in the hands of a few corporations?
Power to the people, NOT the corporations. This is our valley, our food system, OUR SEED.
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