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University says county GMO measure could hamper research

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CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — Oregon State University says a Benton County ballot measure that seeks to ban the cultivation of genetically modified crops in the county could hurt GMO-related university research projects.

Backers of Measure 2-89, the Local Food System Ordinance of Benton County, say the ordinance is limited to food crops. Its goal is to protect farmers from GMO contamination and keep corporations that sell GMO seeds from taking over the county's agricultural base.

The measure would also grant legal rights to soil, plants and water.

University officials fear the measure could affect a host of non-food university projects that use genetic engineering techniques or GMO's, The Corvallis Gazette-Times reports (

OSU officials point to a section of the ordinance that states: "It shall be unlawful for any corporation or governmental entity to engage in the use of genetically engineered organisms within Benton County."

"Our general counsel's office has done a review of the ballot measure as written and has a strong concern that that language, whether intended or otherwise, would impact the use of genetically engineered organisms at Oregon State University," said university spokesman Steve Clark.

Projects that could be affected, the university says, include testing on transgenic mice to discover tumor-suppressing therapy, genetically engineering poplar trees to make them tolerant to herbicides and unable to cross-pollinate, or genetically engineering viruses to protect vineyards from disease and insect damage.

Research on possible treatments of ALS, a degenerative neurological disorder, could also come to a halt. OSU researcher Joe Beckman uses genetically engineered bacteria to produce proteins with potential therapeutic value, and he tests those proteins on laboratory mice genetically engineered to develop ALS.

Thanks to genetic engineering, Beckman's lab has been able to develop a drug that appears to slow or even halt the progression of ALS in mice. If the measure passes, Beckman said he worries he may no longer be able to pursue his work.

"We're working with the FDA, and we're hopeful to be testing in humans within a year," he said.

Private biotech firms operating in Benton County have also expressed concern about the measure. Siga Technologies, which has a $433 million contract to provide anti-smallpox drugs to the Strategic National Stockpile, uses genetic engineering to develop drugs.

Philomath-based company Gene Tools is working on a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. In an email to the newspaper, the company's CEO Jim Summerton said the measure could spell a major setback for researchers like him.

"We are now experiencing a quantum leap in humanity's ability to improve the properties of plants and animals," Summerton said, "except perhaps in Benton County if our local Luddites (anti-technology folks) succeed in getting voters to pass Measure 2-89."

Proponents of the measure insist the GMO ban would not affect most university or private research.

OSU would have to take out its field tests of agricultural GM crops, they say. But any other non-food related projects could go on unhampered, said Stephanie Hampton of Benton Food Freedom, the coalition of organic farmers and anti-corporate activists behind the measure.

Hampton said a ruling by Benton County Circuit Court Judge Locke Williams made it clear the measure contains only one subject, protecting the local food system — a constitutional requirement for a citizen initiative to be placed on the ballot in Oregon.

But Benton County Counsel Vance Croney — who would have to defend the measure from legal challenges if it passes — said the measure includes the whole spectrum of research involving GMOs.

If it passes, it's unclear whether the ban would have any teeth — the Oregon Legislature in 2013 prohibited ballot measures and local governments' GMO bans. According to the measure's backers, a local food system ordinance would pre-empt that state law.

Voters will get a say on the measure on May 19.

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