By: Bennett Hall 

Backers of a measure to ban genetically engineered crops in Benton County delivered a stack of initiative petitions, tied up with red ribbon and topped with a festive bow, to Elections Supervisor Jeff Doty on Tuesday afternoon.

“This is your Christmas present,” petitioner Dana Allen declared as she plopped the papers down on the counter of the county elections office.

Supporters claim to have gathered 3,078 signatures. County elections officials now will begin the task of verifying the signatures to weed out duplicates and to make sure the signers are registered Benton County voters.

If at least 2,171 signatures are determined to be valid, the measure would appear on the ballot for the county’s next regular district election, scheduled for May 19.

Dubbed the Local Food System Ordinance, the measure would prohibit the planting of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, anywhere in the county. It also would bar the use of patented seeds.

Backers originally had planned to hand in their signatures last summer, but decided to hold off after Measure 92, a statewide initiative to require labeling of GMO foods, qualified for the November election. They said they didn't want to confuse local voters.

Measure 92 was narrowly defeated at the polls, but supporters of the local initiative insist that won’t hurt their cause — especially because the state measure passed here in Benton County.

“I think it’s giving us a boost,” said John Booker Jr., treasurer of the measure’s campaign committee. “I think it’s going to help our campaign.”

The group plans to take a break for the holidays, then get to work in January, canvassing neighborhoods and calling voters to line up support.

“Our primary goal right now is to identify 10,000 supporters before ballots are mailed out,” said Vernon Huffman, the campaign’s field coordinator. “Once those ballots are mailed out, we will be reminding them to vote.”

Even if the measure wins at the polls, however, it’s not clear whether it could legally be implemented. Last year, after a similar measure qualified for the ballot in Jackson County, the Oregon Legislature enacted a law prohibiting any other local jurisdictions from banning GMOs.

Supporters of the Benton County ordinance have tried to address that challenge by couching their measure in terms of a constitutional right to local self-rule, but it remains to be seen whether such a claim would hold up in court.

Originally Published: Gazette-Times