The mere mention of Genetically Modified Organisms can set-off a heated holiday dinner table debate.

Beyond the dining room, more than one state has attempted to impose GMO labeling guidelines. Many have gone down to defeat by voters or been squashed by federal mandate.

Despite moves to the contrary, there are legal efforts in play to keep GMOs out of the ground. For one Western state, the battle lines are clearly drawn.

Josh Buettner has our Cover Story.

Greg Loberg/General Manager – West Coast Beet Seed Company: “So we are in a sugar beet field here where our planting configuration is four rows of pollinator and eight rows of male sterile which does not shed pollen.”

Greg Loberg is general manager of West Coast Beet Seed Company in Salem, Oregon.  The business has withstood over 75 years of market volatility. However, Loberg says elements brewing in Oregon’s political climate could threaten the group’s bottom line.

Greg Loberg/General Manager – West Coast Beet Seed Company: “We have activists in this state who continue to bring to the state legislature bills that would either limit or ultimately exclude the production of genetically engineered sugar beets or other crops.”

A flurry of legal proposals over genetically modified foods have rained down across Oregon in recent years.  A statewide ballot initiative on GMO labeling failed in 2014.  At the same time, some counties followed a similar path to ban cultivation of GMO crops, only to have the state legislature block their efforts. 

Southern Oregon’s Jackson County is the only place exempt from the state’s decree, because of a procedural loophole which allows them to maintain a border-to-border moratorium on the technology.

Katie Fast/Executive Director – Oregonians For Food and Shelter: "There's been numerous scientific studies that show there is no harm from these crops, either to the environment or human health."

Katie Fast, the Executive Director of Oregonians For Food and Shelter, advocates an all-of-the-above approach for the hundreds of agricultural products harvested statewide.

Katie Fast/Executive Director – Oregonians For Food and Shelter: "It’s not the role of government.”

Several groups have attempted to influence the course of local control.  One effort to swing the pendulum was House Bill 2739.  If adopted, the measure would have enabled growers victimized by cross-pollination of their non-GMO crops to sue biotech patent holders and seek triple financial damages.  The bill was still in committee when Oregon’s legislature adjourned in July.

State figures indicate West Coast Beet Seeds made up nearly half of all U.S. domestic sugar beet seed production in 2016.  Loberg says his product, engineered for glyphosate resistance, is susceptible to cross-pollination from related organic and conventional plants…and objects to the pie-in-the-sky perfection opponents demand.

Greg Loberg/General Manager – West Coast Beet Seed Company: "They have a concern because their tolerance is literally zero.  And it's zero because they choose to supply to a market that wants it at zero.  And that market will pay a premium."

Purity is of the utmost importance to lucrative export markets and operations that take land out of production to earn USDA’s organic certification.  Those same standards also are crucial to growers of cover crop seeds used by large Midwest farms that can be eliminated by applying Roundup.

Jerome Rosa/Executive Director – Oregon Cattlemens’ Association: “They are looking pretty content today.  Yeah.”

Jerome Rosa heads up the Oregon Cattlemens’ Association.  He says cattle is the state’s top agricultural commodity, at nearly $1 billion in annual revenue.  And he believes GMOs are a valuable tool to help feed a growing world population. 

But Rosa runs a 600 organic dairy and admits that genetically modified organisms help him command higher prices for his organic goods.

Jerome Rosa/Executive Director – Oregon Cattlemens’ Association: “About 8 percent of our dairy products that are sold are organic.  It’s a huge demand here.  It just kind of fits with the lifestyle of who we are in Oregon.”

Rosa is on board with any type of production that will help producers fulfil consumer demand.  But he knows setbacks come with the territory.

Jerome Rosa/Executive Director – Oregon Cattlemens’ Association: “Along the fence line there, that’s Himalayan Berries.  And those are something that are sprayed out.  Say for instance it was aerial applied a herbicide or a pesticide and it drifted onto our property 50 feet, then that 50 feet would have to go through a 3-year process again to become certified.”

Those in favor of the state preempting local control claim a patchwork of county-level GMO regulations would be detrimental to farmers.

But Ivan Maluski, whose 70 acre Shimanek Bridge farm grows mostly hay and a variety of livestock, disagrees.

Ivan Maluski/Policy Director – Friends of Family Farmers: “So that always confounds me that we can talk about local control on so many issues but when we touch on this issue and it’s an issue of protecting farmers at the local level, suddenly local control is controversial.”

Maluski is the policy director for Friends of Family Farmers, a non-profit group that lobbies on behalf of Oregon’s smaller operations.  He has been on the front lines at the state capitol, gathering support for House Bill 2739, and was part of the previous Governor’s 2014 Task Force on Genetically Engineered Seeds and Agricultural Products. 

Ivan Maluski/Policy Director – Friends of Family Farmers: “When you go down at the finer grain level, you realize that most Oregon farmers are not growing GE crops.  There is not a huge desire to do that here.”

The task force reviewed state farming practices and made recommendations such as flexing existing policy.

Ivan Maluski/Policy Director – Friends of Family Farmers: “There are crops that we control in Oregon.  We have what are called control areas, that, if a plant or a pest can be demonstrated to potentially be a menace to other agricultural commodities, the Oregon Department of Agriculture can establish a control area.  And we have a couple.”

Opposing interests do align on occasion, and Maluski thinks voluntary efforts and government could serve stakeholders well.   But those expecting to continue fighting the same battle think the question of authority was answered before the state of Oregon ever examined the issue   .

Greg Loberg/General Manager – West Coast Beet Seed Company: “This crop has been deregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  That is an adequate amount of federal control.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.