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Collateral damage: Backers say M2-89 would only ban GMO crops, but OSU researchers fear it would hurt them too

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In his third-floor laboratory in Richardson Hall, Oregon State University forestry professor Steven Strauss shows off his latest creation: genetically engineered poplar trees that can be propagated in a Petri dish but are incapable of reproducing in the field.

Using a highly efficient new technique known as gene editing, Strauss and his graduate students can rewrite poplar DNA to contain any of a number of desirable traits, from herbicide tolerance or pest resistance to reduced levels of ozone-producing isoprene.

But today’s experiment has a different purpose: to test the effectiveness of two different genetic modifications that would inhibit the trees from producing fertile flowers, thus preventing them from reproducing and passing on any of their genetically engineered traits by open pollination.

“There are people who don’t like the idea of engineered genes getting into a wild tree,” Strauss explained. “If you can reduce the possibility of those future scenarios by greatly reducing the possibility of gene movement, it makes the idea (of genetic engineering) much more acceptable to regulators and the public.”

Before any of Strauss’ experimental trees can be tested in the field, he has to get approval from the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which requires a lengthy application that must include detailed plans for preventing genetic drift. But if a ballot measure on the May 19 ballot passes, Strauss fears he’ll never get the chance to field-test the new self-limiting trait — and that he’ll also have to tear out all of his existing test plots, representing decades’ worth of research.

Proponents of Measure 2-89, also known as the Benton County Local Food System Ordinance, insist the measure would nothing of the kind. All they’re trying to do, they say, is to protect organic and traditional farmers from having their crops contaminated by genetically modified organisms and to keep the corporations behind GMO seeds from taking over the county’s agricultural base.

But OSU officials point to Section 3(b) of the ordinance, which 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.

OSU does field-test some agricultural crops, and even supporters of Measure 2-89 say those outdoor plots would have to go. But according to the university’s reading of the ballot measure, it would also ban a host of other projects that use various genetic engineering techniques or genetically modified organisms for research purposes.

Among the examples cited by Clark are these:

• A potential tumor-suppressing therapy discovered through testing on transgenic mice.

• A strain of bacteria created in the lab that can produce organic compounds for gobbling up oil spills.

• Genetically engineered viruses that can protect vineyards from disease and insect damage.

• And a new kind of therapy that has the potential to halt the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

“We’re quite concerned about this,” Clark said.

Private biotech firms operating in Benton County might be affected as well. Siga Technologies, which has a $433 million contract to provide anti-smallpox drugs to the Strategic National Stockpile, uses genetic engineering techniques in its drug development work, as does Gene Tools, a Philomath company working on a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

In an email to the newspaper, Gene Tools CEO Jim Summerton argued that the Local Food System Ordinance would be 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,” he wrote, “except perhaps in Benton County if our local Luddites (anti-technology folks) succeed in getting voters to pass Measure 2-89.”

Legal matters

Nonsense, says Stephanie Hampton of Benton Food Freedom, the coalition of organic farmers and anti-corporate activists behind the measure.

“The prohibitions only come into effect if there’s a threat to the local food system,” she insists. “OSU has taken the position that non-food research is affected using an isolated phrase taken out of context.”

To support her case, she cited a March 5, 2014, ruling by Benton County Circuit Court Judge Locke Williams affirming that the Local Food System Ordinance contains only one subject, a constitutional requirement for a citizen initiative to be placed on the ballot.

The pertinent section, found under Article IV, reads: “An initiative petition shall include the full text of the proposed law or amendment to the Constitution. A proposed law or amendment to the Constitution shall embrace one subject only and matters properly connected therewith.”

According to Hampton, that means all provisions of the measure must be construed as supporting the measure’s sole purpose: protecting the local food system. Any attempt to read something more into the ordinance, she suggested, would be rejected out of hand in court.

As she said during a Gazette-Times forum on the measure held last week in Corvallis: “We don’t see some idiot approaching OSU and saying, ‘We don’t like you getting a cure for ALS, we’re going to sue you.’”

Eugene attorney Ann Kneeland, who provides legal counsel to the measure’s supporters, said much the same thing in more lawyerly terms.

First of all, Kneeland said, it’s important to take the whole ordinance into account. She pointed to Section 8(b), which defines the phrase “engaged in the use of” as used in Section 3(b), the part OSU finds so objectionable. It talks about genetically modified organisms “which are then used, planted, grown, cultivated, raised, reared, propagated, or harvested,” which Kneeland contended should make the meaning of the measure plain.

“These specific activities characterize uses of GMOs within a local food system, and not GMOs used for research or gene splicing purposes,” she argued.

She also pointed to Section 2, which lays out a “Food Bill of Rights.” Kneeland called that the core of the measure.

“Furthermore, the drafters’ and voters’ intent in passing this initiative is to prohibit only those activities necessary to secure the bill of rights,” she insisted. “The bill of rights creates and secures the local food system — consistent with the initiative’s single subject — by recognizing Benton County’s rights to a local food system, to seed heritage, and of natural communities.”

Dissenting opinions

As anyone who’s ever been to court can attest, not all legal minds think alike.

Benton County Counsel Vance Croney — who will be called upon to defend the measure from legal challenges if it passes May 19 — points to Section 8(c), which defines the term “genetically engineered organism,” as used in Section 3(b), as “any organism, organisms, or life forms, in which the self-replicating material has been changed, engineered, modified or altered.”

The way Croney sees it, that definition clearly includes the whole spectrum of research involving GMOs.

“This ordinance would apply to everybody,” he said.

He called the notion that the ballot title’s reference to a local food system would confine enforcement only to GMO food crops “a red herring,” saying that the single subject requirement only determines whether a measure is sufficiently focused to go before the voters.

“I think that is a misunderstanding of the single subject clause of the Oregon Constitution,” he said.

William Funk, who teaches constitutional law at Lewis & Clark Law School, takes a similar view.

“First, the title of a law, including ballot measures, is not itself ‘law,’ although it sometimes can be referred to in assessing the meaning of an ambiguous statute,” he wrote in an email to the newspaper.

“Here, the measure is not ambiguous with regard to its subject matter; it is not limited to agricultural products,” he added. “‘Genetically modified organisms’ is clearly broader and would be a strange way of describing only genetically modified foods, plants, and seeds.”

Funk goes on to note that the phrase "engage in the use of" appears to exempt the sale of foods containing GMO ingredients from the ban, but not nonfood research or other uses of genetic engineering.

“There is no problem under the single subject rule,” he concludes. “This measure has a single subject — banning the use of GMOs."

Opportunity costs

For Joe Beckman, the answers to these questions are far from academic.

The principal investigator at OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute, Beckman is a leading researcher into the causes and possible treatments of ALS, a degenerative neurological disorder that leads to a loss of muscle control, paralysis and, ultimately, death.

His work relies heavily on GMOs in two ways: He 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.

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

Beckman cautions that there’s no guarantee at this point that the treatment would be effective in humans, and even if it is, final approval by the Food and Drug Administration would likely still be years away.

But if Measure 2-89 passes, he worries that he may no longer be able to pursue his work — at least, not at Oregon State.

For Beckman, the idea of taking transgenic mice and genetic engineering techniques away from scientists seems like a big step backward.

“Twenty-three years ago, we discovered a human gene that causes ALS, and within six months that gene was moved into mice. We’ve been able to work with those mice for 23 years, and we’ve learned so much about the disease,” he said.

“ALS was identified more than 100 years ago,” Beckman added, “and for the first 100 years or so, all we could say was, ‘You’ve got ALS — you’re going to die.’”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net.

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