Rural Oregon county votes on GMO crop ban amid U.S. labeling uproar

May 20 (Reuters) - Voters in a small Oregon county were considering on Tuesday a controversial measure that would ban cultivation of genetically engineered crops within their boundaries.

The measure in Jackson County in southern Oregon, has drawn national attention and more than $1 million in campaign funding to the community, which has only 117,650 registered voters.

“It is drawing a lot of attention,” said Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker. “There is so much buzz about it.”

The ban is supported by a coalition of more than 180 farmers and community members, who have been pushing for the vote on the issue for more than two years.

Supporters say the area’s organic and conventional crops are in danger of contamination by genetically engineered crops, which typically are altered to withstand pesticides or resist insect damage. They also fear widespread use of pesticides associated with the crops.

“There is overwhelming support. We expect it to pass,” said Chris Hardy, a local grower of beets and swiss chard who helped start the initiative. “We are either going to choose the chemical corporations for agriculture or we are going to choose our family farms.”

The ordinance in Jackson County, Oregon requires people to “harvest, destroy or remove all genetically engineered plants” within 12 months of the enactment of the ordinance.

A similar measure is being voted on Tuesday in neighboring Josephine County. But that measure, if passed, is expected to be challenged because it is not exempted from a 2013 law passed by the Oregon legislature that prohibits such GMO bans. Jackson County’s effort was under way before that law and is exempted from it.

Last year, an experimental, unapproved biotech wheat strain developed by Monsanto Co. was discovered contaminating a farm field in the state. Exports of wheat where temporarily disrupted because foreign buyers feared contamination of supplies.

Opponents of the ban say it will be costly for the county to try to enforce a ban on GMOs, and campaign materials urging a vote against the ban say that “to maintain a healthy and safe food supply and thriving agriculture economy, it’s important for Jackson County to embrace all forms of farming and ranching.”

Jackson County, Oregon would not be the first to try to ban GMOs. In 2004, Mendocino County, California, became the first jurisdiction in the United States to outlaw the production of genetically modified crops.

The vote in Jackson County comes as a larger movement is under way in many U.S. states to seek mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered crops.

Consumer groups, scientists and lawmakers supporting mandatory labeling say there are concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops, and labels would help consumers distinguish products containing GMOs so they can avoid them if they wish.

Vermont earlier this month became the first state to mandate GMO labeling.

Monsanto and other developers of genetically engineered crops say their products are safe and that mandatory labels will confuse consumers and increase costs of food production. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)