Interview: Challenging Corporations’ ‘Right’ To Grow GMOs in Rural Oregon

by: Posted on: April 29, 2015

Editor’s Note: Oregonians for Community Rights has filed paperwork to begin petitioning for a “Right to Local, Community Self-Government” state constitutional amendment that would flip corporate “rights” on their head. Not only would the amendment recognize a right for local communities to adopt more stringent protections for health, safety and welfare, it would elevate that right to local self-government above corporations’ claimed constitutional privileges. This spring, activists in Benton County are campaigning for a local GMO ban that has similar language. The Initiative, Measure 2-89, asserts community rights to local self-government and seed heritage, and introduces rights for natural communities, like rivers and aquifers. Then, the ordinance declares that “corporations which violate this Ordinance shall not be deemed to be ‘persons,’ nor possess any other legal rights, privileges, powers, or protections which would interfere with the enforcement of rights or prohibitions enumerated by this Ordinance.”

After navigating years of pre-election challenges, Benton Food Freedom’s initiative will finally be voted on, this May 19th. Read some of Read the Dirt’s previous Benton coverage, here.

Simon Davis-Cohen sat down with Benton Food Freedom communication director Stephanie Hampton to learn more.


As an advocate of the ordinance, why do you think its passage is in the best interest of Benton’s residents?

Measure 2-89 will protect our local food system by elevating the rights of nature and our community above those claimed by the big chemical corporations that dominate agribusiness.

Our Benton County farmers will benefit by being sited in a GMO-free zone that they can use as a marketing tool to instill trust in their non-GMO products, which are enjoying increasing demand in the marketplace.

With the Mega-drought in Mexico and California, our valley will likely see an influx of industrial farming, with its monocultures and concentrated animal feeding operations. We are pushing this ordinance to assert our right to have a say in what happens in our community. We know that this challenges doctrines like the Commerce Clause’s protection against “restraints on trade.”

What is Benton’s landscape like? How is the land used?

Benton, a small but relatively populous county, sits in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Mild climate and fertile soil create farmland that is of the most productive in the state. The largest farms in the county produce grass seed and Christmas trees; however, the agriculture is very diverse with the average farm size of 50 to 80 acres, both conventional and organic.

Oregon State University, a land grant college, is the largest employer. The university remains true to a mission of public good by bringing information to the region’s farmers; their agriculture department researchers are primarily traditional breeders and, as far as we know, no research on GMO food crops exists. However, we have reason to believe OSU administration is actively seeking biotechnology corporate sponsorship.

The food sovereignty of many US localities is threatened. What has moved Benton residents to use their lawmaking powers to protect themselves?

Benton County residents tend to be highly educated. We have ongoing community discussions about sustainability, responsible use of natural resources, and food issues. Local farmers drafted 2-89 primarily because of threats made evident by the recent incident of GMO contamination of Oregon wheat and the struggle to keep canola out of the valley.

Increasingly, there are strong indications that our federal government has given multinational corporations substantial control over our food supply by installing a Monsanto executive as head of the USDA. 10 USDA scientists recently announced that the agency has been systematically intimidating its own scientists and suppressing research that does not validate biotech and industrial agricultural practices.

In our own state, we see the Oregon Farm Bureau accepting money from these biotechnical giants. And though Oregon US Senator Jeff Merkley helped kill the Monsanto Protection Act in Washington DC, our former Governor signed a similar state-level bill in 2013. The bill, SB 633 was written by and for the biotech industry and preempted Oregon communities from passing any laws impacting GMOs.

Why take on corporate “rights”?

We do this because we must.

Since our nation’s founding, corporations have built up an edifice of laws favoring their rights and suppressing citizen’s rights to political power and representation. The Federal Commerce Clause, for example, meant to smooth the way for the nation’s growth, is now used as a tool to disempower any local community that objects to development.

Drawing on the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the Oregon Constitution, we assert that our power to govern is inherent in the people. We do this to fight for our community’s legal standing against “rights” claimed by corporations.

What is the most persuasive argument you have come across, against the initiative? Why do you disagree with it?

The office responsible for finding corporate donors for OSU seems convinced that the ordinance will hamper research at the college. They are interpreting excerpted phrases of the measure very broadly and ignoring the judge’s finding that the single issue of the measure is the local food system. While we acknowledge that OSU will have to change some practices, we’d like them to see the opportunities that lie in becoming the first agricultural school in the USA with a GMO-free environment for the teaching of traditional plant breeding techniques.

Who has been your biggest opposition? What have been some of their tactics?

OSU, the local Chamber of Commerce, Benton County Commissioners and the large landholding grass seed farmers are all opposing us.

There are two deep-pocketed PACs registered against us. The biggest donors appear to be Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow, all of which claim GMO patents. I notice the Koch Brothers gave some money to the Farm Bureau. Not sure what that’s about…

The opposition seems to have no compunction to tell the truth. Somebody told our County Commissioner that the ordinance would ban insulin, because most insulin today is produced with GMO safflower. While it’s true you wouldn’t be able to grow that plant here, the law no more bans insulin than it does high fructose corn syrup. These are products, not organisms.

Can you speak about the significance this vote may have for the wheat industry?

GMO wheat has never been approved for commercial use, but in 2013 rogue pollen—probably from a test plot—contaminated wheat fields in Oregon. The contamination shut down the Asian wheat market to which the vast majority of Oregon wheat is exported. In subsequent legal action, Monsanto accepted responsibility for the contamination caused by their proprietary seed and paid out $14.3 million in financial losses; however, they paid nothing for the loss of trust in the overseas wheat market. All Oregon wheat farmers are now required to pay $300 to $500 in purity tests on each lot of wheat they export.

This single incident of GMO contamination shut down an international market, caused many millions of dollars in financial loss, and permanently damaged the reputation of Oregon wheat, which has resulted in a continuing loss in profits to Oregon farmers.

Our Benton County farmers will prosper by being sited in a GMO-free zone.

After being denied access to the ballot by local judges multiple times, why do you think county judges finally allowed citizens to vote on the initiative?

The authors persisted and rewrote the proposed ordinance to remedy problems raised, and held to the need to defend our local rights. Judges are people who depend on the local food system, too.

The two years of court hearings involved several rewrites of the ordinance. This process has led to new way of thinking about our local rights and our agriculture.

Initially, the courts tended to examine the legal ramifications of the ordinance should it be adopted, but the court has since determined that is not a pre-election issue. At issue were the two Oregon Constitutional requirements for initiatives. The single subject rule was designed to prevent “logrolling,” the process of combining multiple unrelated proposals in one law. Under the Oregon Constitution, all provisions in initiatives must relate to one single subject. Eventually, it was ruled that Measure 2-89 did not “logroll” and that all the provisions in the ordinance related solely to the single subject of the local food system.

Genetically engineered organisms that are not related to food are not impacted. No provision under the single subject of the ordinance can be taken out of the context of the local food system. Research on genetically engineered mice, fruit flies and trees will not be impacted.

Why is the state-level change being proposed by Oregonians for Community Rights needed?

The state constitutional amendment to secure the right of local, community self-government is needed in order to protect the local assertion of rights for people, communities, and nature over those of corporations, as is happening in Benton County to protect local farming. In Oregon today the world is fundamentally upside down when it comes to rights of communities vs. corporations. Conventional law has the state trumping the local even when the state action is about protecting the so-called “rights” of corporations over those of the community to reject a corporate harm and/or embrace a more viable, sustainable, reality.

The way corporations wield state government against the best interest of Oregon communities has made our communities de facto corporate property. This amendment would turn the world right side up, so people are recognized as the true political power, when they come together to adopt law that protects health, safety, and welfare at a higher standard than the state. This amendment would liberate communities to raise the bar on protecting quality of life, not lower it.

For decades, citizens have fought industrial agriculture and other harmful practices with regulatory law. This ordinance abandons this regulatory paradigm and introduces one based on rights. Why make this shift?

I will quote corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris: “The only thing that environmental regulations regulate are the environmentalists.” These regulations keep environmentalists busy while corporations steal us blind, getting what they want every time.

The regulatory process is designed as a box, allowing citizens only limited remedies, practically guaranteeing corporations a right to frack, mine, or otherwise mess up people’s communities.

This box is made up of:

The Federal Commerce Clause: This strips the rights of communities to say no to projects that involve “interstate commerce.”.

Dillon’s Rule: Named after the judge who invented it, this gives states a parental role over all counties and municipalities in their borders. These “children” need permission from the “parent” state in order to act.

Corporate Personhood: Our Supreme Court’s interpretation of the US Constitution enshrines property. Corporations have used these constitutional arguments to elevate their “rights” above local democratic majorities for decades.

State and Federal Preemption: This is why state legislators can pass ALEC model bills like SB 633, forbidding us from doing exactly what we are, in fact, doing in my county.

Using our inherent rights of self-governance over our health, safety and happiness, we can step out of that box and directly challenge those who built the box. The idea is to directly confront the special “rights” that corporations enjoy and the state power that tells us we cannot decide matters in our county.

In Benton County, Oregon, we are doing just that!


Photo: Bruce Bittle

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