State Protects Agribusiness Interests Over the Communities

Judge overturns local ban on GMOs on the grounds of state preemption – trend in Oregon To protect corporate interests over the rights of communities


Kai Huschke

Mercersburg, Pennsylvania:  On May 16th, Josephine County Circuit Court Judge Pat Wolke struck down a pro-sustainable agriculture law that was adopted by the people of Josephine County in May 2014. The law prohibited GMO crops from being grown in the county.

The judge’s decision rested on the state legislature’s passage of SB-863 in 2013, which was drafted by agribusiness corporations to block communities from interfering with the expansion of the GMO seed industry. The law is modeled after similar legislation adopted by more than a dozen other states to protect corporate industrial agricultural practices. It places all authority over agricultural seed in the hands of the state.

The use of state preemption is a judicial invention dating back more than 60 years, legalizing state control over local communities. In Oregon, with regard to agriculture, the state has used preemption repeatedly to eliminate any local barriers to the expansion of pesticides, factory farms, or the land application of sewage sludge. Each of these preemption laws was written and designed to protect industrial agriculture over sustainable agricultural practices by centralizing power at the state level.

Preemption is a commonly used tool by state legislatures across the U.S. to advance corporate interests over community interests. The recently adopted Oregon SB-1573 – regarding a public vote on annexation – is yet another example  of state preemption on behalf of corporations. SB-1573 specifically benefits corporate developers and  was backed by the Oregon Homebuilders Association. The law could also affect sustainable agriculture, as land could fall under development against the will of the people.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) works with communities in Oregon and across the U.S. that are facing preemption as they seek to protect their communities from GMOs, factory farms, fracking, and other threats.

“State preemption is a hammer that the Oregon legislature has used repeatedly against our communities, stamping out efforts to advance sustainable agriculture and other practices in favor of corporate profits,” said Kai Huschke, CELDF’s Northwest Community Organizer. He added, “Through preemption, Oregon and other states are protecting corporate interests over communities and nature.”

Huschke explained further, “States should not have the authority to preempt the very communities they are supposed to protect. Until the rights of communities are protected, such that their legal voice is greater than that of the corporate state, these kinds of decisions will keep being handed down.”

Jackson County’s 2014 GMO ban is exempted by SB-863 and survived a recent legal challenge. However, it is not immune from future preemption by the state. Like Josephine and other communities across the state, it remains vulnerable to actions by the state legislature or the federal government that would supersede state law.

Oregonians for Community Rights, the political arm to the Oregon Community Rights Network, has brought forward a state constitutional amendment on the “Right of Local Community Self-Government.” The amendment would secure decision-making authority at the community level so that visions for sustainable agriculture, energy, and economies, can be adopted and protected  from state action to overturn such laws. Proposed as a citizen initiative, Oregon’s Right of Local Community Self-Government amendment is currently involved in a legal challenge with the state regarding broader initiative petition circulation.


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About CELDF — Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit, public interest law firm providing free and affordable legal services to communities facing threats to their local environment, local agriculture, local economy, and quality of life. Its mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature.

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