During the Oregon Legislature’s most recent special session, one bill stuck out as an oddity. Four of the five bills dealt solidly with fiscal policy -- taxes and the Public Employees Retirement System. The fifth, though, addressed whether local governments could regulate genetically modified crops.
The bill was thrown in as something of a bargaining chip. Gov. John Kitzhaber needed Republican support for his other four endeavors, and the GMO bill was one way to reach a compromise. This deal, however, rubbed environmentalists the wrong way. They began calling the bill the "Oregon Monsanto Protection Act."
One of the bill’s critics was Rick North, the former project director of the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility's Campaign For Safe Food. In a piece he wrote for BlueOregon, a liberal political blog, he called out two of the local -- and wholesome sounding -- groups that were big advocates of the legislation.
"Oregonians for Food and Shelter and the Oregon Farm Bureau, biotech puppets who have most state Republican legislators in their back pocket, jumped into action," he wrote. "OFS proudly features board members from Monsanto and Syngenta and the Farm Bureau also receives funding from biotech companies."
We were curious about the board member and funding claims, so we decided to take a look.
The first bit, that Oregonians for Food and Shelter has board members from those two leading biotech firms was easy to check. We simply went to the group’s website and found, listed along with 34 other voting members, these two names: Michael Diamond, the director of government affairs for Monsanto, and Danelle Farmer, who was most recently listed as a senior state government relations manager at Syngenta. The names aren’t difficult to find -- and they’re listed along with their corporate affiliations.
Naturally, we reached out to Oregonians for Food and Shelter to see if they had extra information we might consider. Scott Dahlman, the executive director, said it is unabashedly the group’s position to defend "the right to responsibly use pesticides and biotechnology."
Next we checked out the Oregon Farm Bureau funding statement.
We started by speaking with the bureau’s spokeswoman, Anne Marie Moss. She said it was probably true because the group has a political action committee that accepts donations from any and all groups.
Moss stressed, however, that the Farm Bureau is a largely grassroots organization that takes positions based on what county members -- all of whom are required to be involved in agriculture or ranching -- vote to take up on the state level.
"We have members on both sides of that issue as well, but it's like a democracy," Moss said. "Majority rules."
Generally, she said, the group tries to support all sorts of agriculture, whether organic or genetically modified, but often members come down on the side of fewer restrictions. "We believe in the whole big tent of agriculture, all types are welcome," she said. There is already "a lot of regulation so, as a whole, we try to push back. We don't want our members regulated out of business."
We took a look at the campaign finance records for ourselves and found that both Monsanto and Syngenta had contributed a significant sum to the group.
Since 2006, the Oregon Farm Bureau has reported receiving about $440,000 in cash contributions. Of that, Monsanto has contributed $103,500 and Syngenta has given more than $19,000. That means those two companies represent a combined 28 percent of the total reported cash contributions. This year, Monsanto donated $10,500 -- $4,500 in mid-September.
During our conversation, Moss noted that while the money is appreciated, "Monsanto couldn't come in and give us a command directive." Indeed, we found donations from other sources, including individual farms and nurseries.
For our final stab at due diligence, we called North to let him know we’d looked into his claims. We asked him why he thought this information was important given that both groups consider themselves to be grassroots. "I don't know that it's anything more complicated than ‘Follow the money,’" he said.
In an opinion piece for BlueOregon, North said Oregonians for Food and Shelter "proudly features board members from Monsanto and Syngenta and the (Oregon) Farm Bureau also receives funding from biotech."
We’ve checked out both claims and found them to be accurate. We rate this statement True.
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