Fighting for the Right to a Sustainable Food System: Benton County, Oregon

by: Posted on: January 16, 2013

Photo: Philomath Barn, Benton County, Oregon, Wikimedia Commons

By Dana Allen

Editor’s Note: The Benton County Community Rights Coalition is working to qualify an ordinance for the ballot that elevates the community’s rights over corporate “rights” and state preemption in their county. The ordinance asserts the community’s right to a sustainable food system, seed heritage, and the inalienable rights of nature to exist, persist and flourish. If passed by a vote of the county citizens, it would ban GMO’s as a violation of these rights. Dana Allen, one of three founding members and chief petitioner, shares with us a sneak peak at what Benton County has been running up against as they go through the process of getting their initiative through the system. We will feature a more comprehensive piece about Benton County, Oregon in the future.


We, the Benton County Community Rights Coalition (BCCRC), are going through trials and tribulations right now because there is a very good chance that our Community Food Bill of Rights Ordinance may be denied a ballot title. If our county court rules that the ordinance violates the “single subject rule” we will be unable to collect petition signatures. We argue that everything in the ordinance relates to the single subject of a sustainable food system, but the county attorney believes that elevating community rights above the “rights” of corporations does not relate to our right to a sustainable food system.  The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has told us from the very beginning about the challenges that we will face, and we were totally prepared for this.  Before we submitted our Ordinance, it was reviewed multiple times by CELDF to ensure that legally it DID meet the single subject requirement – legally it is tighter than a drum. Read it here.

If the court rules against us on this single subject rule (we will probably hear in late February/early March), CELDF is already helping us write a new Food Bill of Rights that we will submit to Elections within a week or so of the court ruling.  CELDF also told us how to strategically use this process to our advantage no matter how things go.  And we listened.  Nobody is going to be disheartened.  Our supporters are already mad as hell at the county attorney for taking us to court because he doesn’t like that our ordinance puts community rights over corporate “rights” and state pre-emption.  If the court shoots us down, there are going to be a whole lot of pissed off citizens around here.  And they are going to seriously engage on the next go round with our next initiative.  So we win either way.

Other community supporters don’t need to know the nuts and bolts of this rights-based work.  All they need to know is that all power to govern rests with the people in their state constitution.  All they have to know is that the initiative process is their right to govern what goes on in their community.  That they have the right to protect the health, safety, and welfare of all of their residents by a vote of the people.  All they have to know is that if their initiative gets blocked, their “misrepresentatives” have denied them their democratic rights.  All they have to know is that the emperor has no cloths – that the system that we call a democracy represents corporate interests and the system itself, not the people. Period. All of this has to be framed in such a way that people don’t react to this stuff by getting disheartened or giving up.  It should be framed in such a way that the citizens can see that the “system” is working perfectly – for the powers that be, not them.  And the system’s demonstration of that fact by denying them ballot access should not have to be processed in their brain.  It should go straight to their gut as if they have been physically assaulted – which they have.  And that should make them mad as hell and determined to make it known that they aren’t going to take it anymore.

Our communities need rabble-rousers that can frame everything through a rights-based lens.  That core group of organizers also needs to know how to frame the issues for the citizens in a way that gets to their core beliefs; that we supposedly live in a democracy; that all power rests with the people; that the representatives we elect work for the people; that the people have the right to change how the system works.  Community leaders need to be able to show the citizens that they have been betrayed by the system, and by the people that are running this supposed “democracy”.  The citizens have to know in their gut that their fundamental rights to the health, safety, and welfare of their families, neighbors, and community have been seized and stomped on.  They have to feel the pain of actually experiencing the fact that our democracy does not work as they believed it did.  They have to get mad enough to engage with their neighbors, together, and push back with the inalienable rights that their constitution says they have.

6 Responses to “Fighting for the Right to a Sustainable Food System: Benton County, Oregon”

  • Huh? Community leaders need to be able to show the citizens that they have been betrayed by the system?? I think that GMOs alone are enough pain. Experiencing victimhood is merely demoralizing, not uplifiting. Quit fighting the Farm Bureau, they have a lot of money and slick attorneys and re-write a simple GMO crop ban that issn;t a sitting duck for a Right-to-Farm Law challenge and get it on the ballot - Jackson County did it and you can too! 10,000 petitioners in Bellingham WA got zip for their efforts on the coal train because of this overreach!
    by: bcomneson: Thursday 17th of January 2013
  • BCOMNES, don't be surprised when Jackson County's simple ban gets summarily overturned, because it does not directly name the systemic obstacle: constitutional rights that corporations unjustly wield under our current legal structure. Likewise, don't be surprised when Bellinghamsters toss out their current undemocratic city councilors...Stay tuned!
    by: Kenny Joneson: Tuesday 22nd of January 2013
  • I'm in favor of the "over reach" because it attaches human rights to initiatives. Regrettably the "single subject" rule is increasingly being misused to deny community rights. Win or lose the inevitable appeals create a broader legal platform for community rights. It will take years to educate activists about the tradition of rights based organizing (ex. abolition and suffrage) and enable them to mount persistent campaigns. The suggestion to "quit fighting" belies a misunderstanding of human nature and the revolutionary nature of rights based organizing.   Here's a view from 1907. "The powerful corporate interests engaged in the exploitation of municipal franchises are securely entrenched behind a series of constitutional and legal checks on the majority which makes it extremely difficult for public opinion to exercise any effective control over them."” J. Allen Smith, The Spirit of American Government, 1907, p. 289.
    by: Condorceton: Tuesday 22nd of January 2013
  • How about the police not cmiong a kicking down your door and dragging you out into the street and searching your house. Or the same situation in your car driving down the street. Or in jails, gaurds can not beat prisoners just because they are in jail.
    by: Javieron: Friday 15th of February 2013
  • I agree: Huh? So you encourage folks to engage in pointless litigation so they'll "feel the pain...that our democracy does not work as they believed it did"? LIke we're too dumb or lazy to do anything unless we're "mad enough"? Okay, let's just pretend we're that mad. Just how are we to "push back" with our "inalienable rights" to get where we want to be (which is where, exactly)? And when you've answered that question, why not just skip your pointless litigation that's wasting valuable time, energy, resources and community credibility, and organize that "push back"? Your insistence on the pain/anger thing is just a little wacky.
    by: Sarah Owenson: Tuesday 25th of February 2014
  • Oh, Sarah's all criticism and no action. Where's her alternatives, if she doesn't like community rights? (and don't point to that IOPS crap -- they aren't doing anything...yet -- maybe she should focus more on getting them to do something rather than continuing to attack others who already are?). Unfortunately, the criticism isn't even that good or helpful, often just baseless and self-contradictory hulaballoo. Sarah: keep pretending that people are "that mad." While you spin your wheels on endless armchair intellectual exercises, real people are doing real things to deal with some fundamental problems in our society. 160 communities + 200 in-process across 12 states and counting. State-wide constitiutional amendments starting to appear. Urban organizing strategies against gentrification, etc, as well. We live in a system that does not care about human rights and the rights of nature. we live in a system that cares only about commerce and property (and profit). human rights and the rights of nature come second to those, if ever at all. wherever there is a conflict, human rights and the rights of nature lose. in other words, power is inherent in the people, but the power of the system depends on the people a. not believing so and b. certainly not acting on it. community rights, as a strategy, a. awakens this belief in the people and b. provides a very eloquent strategy to act on it to create a sane, just system of law and governance at local - federal levels without a complete rejection of the current system. it doesn't matter where we start -- gmo's, prison-industrial complex, whatever. when people start believing that they hold the keys to self-governance, and they start acting on it, then the real game of chicken comes w/the existing system. and the result is a win-win for the rights of natural and human communities and persons: when corporations and their guv'mint cronies attempt to squash community rights ordinances, it catalyzes greater resistance. when corporations and governments leave them alone, the people get what they want: the power of self-governance within a system that recognizes human rights, civil rights and the rights of nature as foundational to and greater than the rights of corporations, governments, property and commerce.
    by: ethanon: Sunday 17th of August 2014

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