They--even some of us--said it couldn't be done

Jeff Golden

Two weeks after the fact, people in Jackson County are still rubbing their eyes and wondering if we really did approve a ban on GMO cultivation, the only one that will be allowed in Oregon—thanks to the pre-emption bill shoved into last year’s special session package—in the foreseeable future.

Those of us who’ve worked the trenches down here for a long time can’t remember anything like it. A brief recap:

In the spring of 2012, a young organic farmer named Chris Hardy discovered that the multinational ag firm Syngenta had secretly planted genetically modified sugar beets (banned in its native Switzerland) near his small fields outside Ashland and in other leased plots around the Rogue Valley. The odds of GMO pollen contamination were high enough that he had to plough his own crop under. He took his concerns to both Syngenta representatives and county officials, none of whom were impressed, interested, or mindful of Chris’ tenacity. He started rallying other growers, local food marketers, and passionate patrons of fresh, unadulterated local food (as in most other places, our ranks have been growing fast here), and the result was an initiative petition campaign that quickly gathered more than enough signatures.

Then came the dance at the 2013 special session, where a key block of Republicans—you know, those champions of moving power and authority away from Salem and towards local government—demanded the recently-defeated legislation to pre-empt counties from initiating agricultural regulations like, oh, say, GMO bans or labeling measures. That was their non-negotiable price for buying the PERS reform/tax tweak “grand” bargain, and the governor paid it. In a counter-concession, Senator Alan Bates and Representative Peter Buckley were able to carve out an exemption for Jackson County so that we could vote on our already-qualified ballot measure.

It surprised no one that Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and their pass-throughs like the Oregon Farm Bureau carpet-bombed local media with fearful, objectively false ads. They were different but ethically comparable to the lies that reversed initial public opinion and defeated recent statewide GMO labeling measures in both California and Washington. In the end the industry-funded campaign, known—really—as “Good Neighbor Farmers,” spent in the $40-$45 range for every vote they won (an aside: can anyone think of an election with more expensive votes?).

On May 20, two years and two months after Syngena’s beet crop was first discovered here, solidly Republican Jackson County voted to ban GMO cultivation. The margin was 2-to-1.

It’s fair, probably understated, to say that some of us had to muffle loud inner skeptics as we worked on this campaign. Like the agricultural vision of these young rabble-rousing farmers would trump Monsanto and Syngenta’s business plans. Good luck with that.

What we didn’t factor in was a profound hunger, stronger than red/blue loyalties, for a different path than we’ve been traveling. Fewer chemicals and more confidence in the food we eat. More connection to the people who grow it, fewer boxes in our pantry with endless unpronounceable ingredients. More power to shape our own future and less deference to the drumbeat of authoritative media messages that don’t line up with our deepest common sense. Less connection to stuff and more to place, a place for which many of us feel a deep and protective local patriotism.

Watching dozens of young volunteers whooping and hollering as election night returns came in, I wondered how many were stunned by the thought that we actually have power. How many were, for the very first time, seeing political activism as more than a relic that gets their Boomer parents nostalgic? Maybe engaging, organizing, standing and fighting for what they believe could have something to do with the future they want.

So how to best use this historically energizing moment? Could it be the fuse for a local, maybe statewide movement we haven’t yet seen, with a reconfigured set of allies? Without knowing just what its agenda would be, I sense four ingredients that could be potent in politically-fractured Jackson County: • More room at the table for teens-to-30-somethings, taking what they’ve been telling us more seriously. Much of what they tell us has to do with current practices they see shaping the environment they’ll live in after most of us are gone, with climate change, water and food topping the list. • A shift in where we look for the basics—food, energy, employment—from multinationals with no abiding stake in our community, towards ourselves and our neighbors. This will be both hard and satisfying. • Relentless challenge to the system of organized bribery that’s contaminated (especially national) government and blocked solutions to our biggest problems, • Recognition that the standard partisan divisions confuse more than serve us. They show up every day; day-after pundits called the GMO ban a “liberal” win. Those of us who knocked on doors for the measure know how much more than that it is.

To capture at least some of the momentum, I published an invitation to Southern Oregonians, whether they were aye or nay on the GMO ban, to send their email addresses to [email protected] if they’re interested in a fresh conversation. I’d like to hear what people from other parts of the state think might be newly possible.

For a lot of young Southern Oregonians who haven’t grown up with much hope, the possibilities just expanded in a very big way.

Former Jackson County Commissioner Jeff Golden is the creator and host of public television’s Immense Possibilities and author of UNAFRAID: A Novel of the Possible. He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

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