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Biopharm Crop Ban Heads for Vote in Oregon Senate

Capital Press | May 27, 2005
By Mark Engler

SALEM ­ The anti-"biopharm" bill under consideration in the Oregon Legislature that seeks to prohibit farmers and researchers from growing a range of genetically modified crops drifted to the Senate floor this week.

On a 3-2 straight party-line vote, Democrats on the Senate Environment and Land Use Committee moved Senate Bill 570 with a ³do pass² recommendation.

The bill directs the state Department of Agriculture to slap a hefty fine ­ as much as $25,000 ­ on anyone caught growing genetically engineered plants covered under the ban.

Specifically targeted for prohibition by the legislation are genetically modified crops "designed to produce industrial products, substances for use in industrial products, industrial or research chemicals, or industrial or research enzymes." If the legislation is adopted, Oregon would become the only state in the country with such a ban in place.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, sitting in for an absent Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, cast the deciding committee vote in favor of SB570 on Tuesday.

Plants would be defined as "genetically engineered" if they contain genetic materia "changed through modern biotechnology in a way that does not occur naturally by multiplication or natural recombination" and "not used in traditional breeding and selection." During the May 24 hearing the environment committee approved amendments to the bill to exempt certain herbicide-tolerant GE crops such as the Round-Up Ready varieties. In general, "if a plant has been genetically engineered to enhance disease-resistance, this bill does not cover that," said Rick North, of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, a chief proponent of the legislation.

North and other activists who oppose genetic engineering worry altered plants grown to produce certain chemicals or drugs could contaminate society¹s food supplies with those substances. They believe the federal government is doing little to adequately address the dangers they say are posed by outdoor commercial growing, or even testing, of the crops.

But if successful in the full Senate, the biopharm legislation is likely to run into much stiffer resistance in the Oregon House of Representatives ­ where rural Republicans set the agenda, and have in the past been critical of efforts to intentionally sideline Oregon as other states seek to reap economic rewards from biotechnology.

Senate Bill 570 is opposed by the Oregon Farm Bureau and the pro-industry Oregonians for Food and Shelter. In addition, state government agriculture officials have said they'd prefer to defer to the federal government on the issue, rather than set a precedent for regulating the crops on a state-by-state basis.

Katie Fast, a lobbyist for OFB, said her organization is confident the bill will die in the House.

"These are already highly-regulated crops by the USDA and the FDA," she said. "We're in support of rules to protect other producers and protect the spread of these crops. But we just can't support a ban on their production." Fast said OFB would like to see the state Board of Agriculture develop a comprehensive policy for genetically modified crops after a full examination of the issues involving all the interested parties and industry sectors. "That would hopefully be the beginning of a thoughtful, long-term discussion on this issue," said Fast.

No biopharm crops have yet been approved for commercial production in the United States. In 2004 USDA officals approved testing on about 40 trial plots.

 

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