By: Mateusz Perkowski

SALEM — A bill aimed at encouraging mediation over biotech crop disputes is poised to become law in Oregon, but the original idea has been scaled back substantially.

An amended version of House Bill 2509 is headed for a vote on the Senate floor after earlier passing the House despite some unexpected pushback from critics of genetically modified organisms.

Under the initial version of the bill, a farmer who refuses to engage in mediation but then loses a lawsuit over a biotech crop dispute would have to pay the opposing party’s legal bills.

Although HB 2509 quietly passed the House without attracting controversy, it met with resistance in the Senate, where GMO critics pounced on it as being unfair to non-biotech growers.

Friends of Family Farmers, Our Family Farms Coalition and the Center for Food Safety argued that growers shouldn’t be forced into mediation that could prevent them from obtaining timely legal relief if they’re threatened with cross-pollination from GMOs.

Critics also objected to the lack of time and cost limits on mediation, claiming it could become prohibitively expensive and thus discourage growers from approaching neighbors with concerns.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s oversight of the mediation program was also called into question, since some GMO critics claim the agency is biased in favor of genetic engineering.

An amendment to HB 2509, recently adopted by the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, gives farmers the option of seeking mediation through ODA or the USDA.

The time and cost of mediation is capped at four hours and $2,500, and the threat of liability for the opposing party’s legal expenses is removed from the new version.

Instead, if a lawsuit is filed, a judge “may impose sanctions” against a farmer who refuses mediation and “may consider that unwillingness when determining whether to grant or deny a preliminary injunction.”

These changes have convinced Friends of Family Farmers, which is closely involved in legislative negotiations over GMOs, to drop its opposition to HB 2509.

The group was nervous about the attorney fee provision because biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta have tremendous legal resources they could deploy to aid biotech growers, said Ivan Maluski, its policy director.

“I don’t think you need to encourage people toward mediation with stiff penalties,” he said.

While Maluski acquiesced to HB 2509, he said it’s “laughable” to consider the bill an important step in state oversight of GMOs.

He would prefer the legislature adopt a proposal that would create control areas where biotech crops are subject to restrictions, such as isolation distances.

“The legislature has really accomplished nothing significant on this issue so far,” Maluski said.

The Oregon Farm Bureau, which opposes stricter GMO regulations, is still supportive of HB 2509 even though it’s been toned down, said Katie Fast, vice president of public policy for the group.

“It doesn’t have as many teeth to push people into mediation” but the bill will still hopefully help them to find ways to coexist, she said.

The Oregon Farm Bureau isn’t aware of any lawsuits over cross-pollination among organic, conventional and biotech growers, so a more drastic approach is unnecessary, Fast said.

More stringent proposals debated this year appear to be a “solution in search of a problem,” she said. “We’re hearing of very few neighbor-to-neighbor conflicts.”

Originally Published: Capital Press