By: Bennett Hall 

Voters in the May election will be asked to determine the future of genetically engineered crops in Benton County

An initiative that would ban the planting of genetically modified organisms or patented seeds has qualified for the May 19 ballot.

Backers of the anti-GMO ballot measure, known as the Local Food System Ordinance, turned in initiative petitions with more than 3,000 signatures last month, and Elections Supervisor Jeff Doty has ruled that 2,658 were valid.

Under state election law, supporters needed the signatures of at least 2,171 Benton County voters, or 6 percent of the number who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election, Doty said. He added that the measure would be assigned a number on Friday.

Benton Food Freedom, the organization promoting the initiative, plans to announce the ballot number at a campaign kickoff rally at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Old World Deli, 341 S.W. Second St.

“It’s a chance to thank everybody for what’s already been done and get them ready for what’s coming next,” said Vernon Huffman, the campaign’s field organizer.

Huffman said volunteers would start making phone calls and canvassing neighborhoods to pinpoint voters who favor the proposal, then mount a get-out-the-vote campaign once the vote-by-mail election begins.

“We’re not trying to talk anyone into anything,” Huffman said. “We know there are enough people who support us; we just have to identify who those people are.”

The measure already has survived a legal challenge from opponents, who went to court last year to force a rewording of the caption, question and summary that will appear on the ballot. Huffman also predicted a barrage of opposition from large agribusiness corporations, which spent millions in the November election to narrowly defeat Oregon Measure 92, which would have required labels on genetically modified foods.

And even if the Benton County initiative wins at the polls, there’s still no guarantee it would be allowed to take effect. In 2013, after similar proposals were filed in other Oregon cities and counties, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting such local bans while a task force works to develop a statewide policy on genetically modified organisms.

Benton Food Freedom aims to nullify that prohibition by including language in its measure asserting a community right to self-governance, but a court challenge to that provision seems likely.

Originally Published: Gazette Times