A federal judge who listened Wednesday to two hours of arguments in a lawsuit that challenges a southern Oregon county's ban on genetically modified crops said he might rule as early as next week.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke is being asked to decide whether Jackson County's ordinance can take effect June 6. County voters approved it overwhelmingly last May.
The county agreed not to enforce the ban until a lawsuit filed by two GMO alfalfa farmers is resolved.
In Wednesday's arguments, a lawyer for the alfalfa farmers argued that the ban is prohibited by Oregon's "right to farm" law.
The law typically protects farmers from neighbors who might complain about noises, smells, dust and other things that accompany farming.
Clarke questioned whether the statute was intended to protect things like GMO technology. The legislative history seems to indicate that lawmakers passed the "right to farm" statute to prevent urban sprawl from undermining agriculture, he said.
"It seems to me this situation doesn't squarely fit into that now, does it?" Clarke said.
Tom Buchele represents supporters of the GMO ban. He said the judge seemed to understand that it is designed to protect local farmers from contamination from genetically modified crops.
"The law is trying to prevent something from happening," Buchele said.
Representing the alfalfa farmers, lawyer David Markowitz said "right to farm" protections are much broader than the urban sprawl issue. The statute is intended to preserve the entire resource base of Oregon agriculture, which includes biotech crops, he said.
The GMO alfalfa farmers are trying to prevent the ban from taking effect. If they are forced to pull out their alfalfa, they say the county should compensate them for the loss of $4.2 million.
The county has countered that the Legislature recognized the validity of the ban when it gave Jackson County an exception to a statewide prohibition on GMO laws. The county has also argued that the farmers assumed the risk of a potential ban when they planted alfalfa genetically modified to withstand weed killer.
One of the chief supporters of the county ordinance, Chris Hardy, said the judge's line of questioning made him somewhat optimistic.
"I think he realized that we did what we had to do to protect farmers from the eventual contamination by GMOs," Hardy said.
The arguments drew a full house in the courtroom. Another 75 people waited downstairs in the lobby.
Though genetically engineered crops are common and no mainstream science has shown they are unsafe, opponents contend GMOs are still experimental and promote the use of pesticides. They say more testing is needed.
Organic farmers in particular want to protect their crops from being cross-pollinated by genetically modified ones.