GM Wheat Discovered in Oregon, Benton County Continues Work on Food Bill of Rights

by: Posted on: June 06, 2013

By Clinton Lindsey, 5th-generation farmer and co-founder of Benton County Community Rights Coalition

Editor’s Note: Benton County, Oregon grows seed (including wheat) 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.

This is an adaptation of Clint’s previous article, which appeared before the discovery of GMO wheat. This version also includes an update on the status of the Benton County Food Bill of Rights ordinance.

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 other crops are 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. Our robust and growing organic industry makes up a vibrant local food system that many farmers and citizens have spent their lives building.

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 Willamette Valley’s farm and food system conflict 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. A large number of people’s livelihoods are at stake in the decision to open up our valley to more genetically modified organism (GMO) agriculture. GMO sugar beets were introduced to the valley in 2006, and within three years they had all but taken over the entire market. This created deep divides in the specialty seed industry. Those who grow organic and conventional varieties of beets absolutely do not want GMO beets in the valley, for fear that the GMO sugar beets will contaminate their crops and shut them out of lucrative overseas markets like Japan and the European Union, neither of which permit GMO seeds to be imported. The GMO sugar beet growers feel they need the GMO technology to compete. GMO 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 GMO alfalfa before planting and feeding it to their animals.

Both of these threats pale next to the potential threat of GMO wheat, which has now been found in a field in Eastern Oregon. Wheat is the major food crop of the world, and if the wheat industry in the northwest comes to be dominated by GMOs to the degree that the sugar beet industry has, then the food system we have worked hard to build will be devastated. The recent discovery of Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready GMO wheat in Eastern Oregon has sent shockwaves through the industry. Japan and South Korea, two of the largest buyers of Pacific Northwest wheat, have either canceled orders or put a temporary hold on shipments until the situation is resolved. The discovery also shows Monsanto’s promises of coexistence of GMO and conventional and organic practices to be hollow and false. The local food system can and will be undermined by the biotech industry if GMO crops are allowed to thrive here.

GMO crops bring with them not just the threat of contamination. If a farmer is knowingly or even unknowingly contaminated by a patented GMO seed, his crop is subject to potential litigation by the biotech firm that owns the seed patent. It would be a crime for the farmer to save his contaminated seed to plant again, even if he didn’t know it was contaminated. This opens the farmer up to a host of legal troubles. 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 10, 2012 at First Alternative Food Co-op in Corvallis, OR to hear Paul Cienfuegos speak about the threat of GMO agriculture and a new way that we the people can potentially stop it. Cienfuegos is an activist from California who recently relocated to Portland, OR. He spoke of a rights-based approach to activism; that is, using the fundamental 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 fact that all rights are inherent in the people. What this means is that to give a law teeth, we would 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 for 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 as they pertain to 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 Cienfuegos as a speaker. More support was gathered and more members joined the group. A short time after that, 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 six months of hard work on the minutiae of the wording, the first draft of the ordinance was complete. The ordinance was submitted to the county elections office with an eye on making the May 2013 ballot.

We hit a snag when the county ruled that the ordinance did not address the single-issue requirement. Any ordinance submitted to the county must have within it elements that only pertain to a single topic. We then filed a motion to overturn the county’s decision, as 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. The county judge ruled that by including the anti-corporate personhood language we were straying outside the single-issue requirement, forcing us to step back and edit the language of the ordinance.

Our feeling is that the anti-corporate personhood language is key to the enforceability of the ordinance. 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 the food system of our county to look like. This issue is a key example of the conflict between the rights of the people and the artificial “rights” given to 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 have now completed the redrafting of our ordinance and resubmitted it to Benton County on June 5th, 2013.

Key language in the Ordinance includes:

We the people of Benton County find that the patenting and privatization of seeds that have been genetically manipulated or altered,  interferes with the diversity of and access to the genetic foundation of food systems and the peoples’ seed heritage; reduces the peoples ability to save, replant, and adapt open pollinated seeds free of contamination to local conditions on their own land; limits research and development of uncontaminated seeds and other life forms adapted to local growing conditions, soils, and the economic and nutritional needs of the community; encourages the production and use of patented genetically modified or altered life forms, which pose significant risks to natural communities and farmer livelihoods through irreversible contamination of crops and related species.

We the people of Benton County understand that any attempt to prohibit the privatization and use of patented seed may run afoul of claimed corporate “rights” to engage in those practices, as well as State or federal laws. We understand that failure to legislatively challenge those “rights” and laws guarantees that a sustainable food system will never exist.

We the people of Benton County therefore enact this local law pursuant to the inherent and inalienable right of the residents of Benton County to govern their own county for their own health, safety, and welfare. That authority is also secured by the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that governments are instituted to secure the rights of people, in the State Constitution of Oregon’s recognition that all power is inherent in the people, and in the Benton County Charter, which delegates the authority to the people and their representatives to enact local legislation on matters of county concern.”

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 GMO 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, and we want to do so in a way that removes the right of corporations and state and federal authorities to usurp our citizen’s decision should it pass.

This begs 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 oft-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. 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, despite widespread opposition to any change in the rule that prohibits commercial-scale canola cultivation in the Willamette Valley, DID IN FACT change the rule, allowing several thousand acres of canola to be planted every year. This will have devastating and far-reaching effects on agriculture in the Willamette Valley. Canola is a noxious weed whose seed is heavily contaminated by genetically engineered traits. GMO canola is widely grown and it is now difficult to find uncontaminated conventional canola. Allowing the spread of this plant threatens 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. Thankfully the Oregon legislature is considering a bill that would go over the ODA’s head and place a moratorium on canola production in the valley pending more studies of its potential effects on the industry, but we cannot rely on state and federal government to protect us from this kind of threat to our food system.  We must act at the local level.

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 for more GMO technology to be adopted by the farmers of our valley, 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 rights 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 that 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. Using GMO seeds would be categorically banned should the citizens of Benton County adopt our food bill of rights.

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 GMO seed 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 who clearly do not have our best interests at heart?

Power to the people, NOT the corporations.  This is our valley, our food system, OUR SEED.


Photo: Bruce Bittle


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