There's much to talk about in Ashland—a southern Oregon winter so dry that, for the first time in 50 years, the local ski mountain failed to open, or the fare at this year's Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
But it's not the weather or the arts that are dominating conversations there. It's three big letters: GMO.
The controversy over genetically modified organisms in food has come to Jackson County, where voters will consider a measure in May to ban growing "genetically engineered" plants. Local fields of modified sugar beets are a top concern of ban advocates.
"It's certainly the talk of the town," says Vincent Smith, an assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at Southern Oregon University.
Smith says young voters, who tend to be apathetic, particularly in primary elections, are especially engaged.
"It's a huge issue for students," Smith says. "It's all they want to talk about."
The Jackson County measure may be only a prelude to a statewide measure that—based on recent GMO fights in neighboring states—could become the most expensive ballot-measure fight in Oregon history. The current high-water mark is 2007's Measure 50, a failed tobacco tax increase. Proponents spent $4.1 million and opponents $12.1 million.
A dozen years ago, Oregon looked at becoming the first state in the nation to require labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients. Voters trounced the measure 71 to 29 percent after agribusiness companies, led by Monsanto, spent $5.5 million to defeat it.
This year, proponents have submitted initiative measures that (according to the wording of one) "requires food manufacturers, retailers to label 'genetically engineered' foods as such." The Oregon GMO Right to Know committee, which has raised $112,000, will need to gather 87,213 signatures by July 3 to make the ballot.
There are a couple of reasons to think the result could be different this time.
First, the fight in Jackson County is drawing attention to the issue.
Monsanto and other agribusiness giants, Dupont and Syngenta, have poured cash into Jackson County to defeat the measure. As of April 15, their committee opposing the GMO seed ban has raised $834,000—more than $8 for every registered voter in the county. Proponents of the ban, meanwhile, have raised just $180,000.
Ban supporters have distributed 2,500 lawn signs and knocked on thousands of doors. "People down here are really disgusted to see this kind of money flowing in," says Elise Higley, a Jackson County farmer and campaign manager for the GMO ban. "But I think it's activated people and caused them to step forward."
Second, recent GMO labeling battles in Washington and California have given proponents signs of hope, even though measures in both states went down to defeat.
In 2012, California narrowly defeated a GMO labeling measure after Monsanto and other corporations spent $46 million to defeat it. In 2013, Washington saw the companies spend nearly $33 million. Proponents, led by Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, spent $8 million and lost by 2 percentage points—the same as in California.
The off-year vote in Washington saw low turnout—46 percent.
That the measure came so close to passing anyway is a positive sign for proponents here: Based on historical trends, Oregon's 2014 general election is likely to see turnout of at least 70 percent, buoyed by young voters, who are more supportive of labeling.
Oregon's largest city spent much of 2013 chewing on an issue with some similarities—fluoridation. In the vote whether to fluoridate Portland's drinking water, proponents found their arguments no match for the passion and skepticism fluoride critics brought to the race.
Fluoride backers outspent their opponents 3-to-1 but got trounced at the polls 61 to 39 percent. About one in five Oregon voters lives in Multnomah County, and the fluoride results suggests many voters are skeptical of science, particularly corporate-funded science.
Western Washington University political science professor Todd Donovan, who watched the Washington labeling ballot fight closely, says the sentiments that led to the defeat of fluoride are similar to those that underpin arguments for GMO labeling.
"There's maybe an anti-science feeling that runs through the anti-fluoride and the pro-labeling groups," Donovan says. "There is an overlap there."
Pat McCormick, a Portland public relations consultant who worked to defeat Oregon's 2002 GMO labeling measure, says he thinks fluoride critics are likely to support labeling.
"The two issues are related," says McCormick, whose firm has worked closely with the political consulting firm that defeated the GMO labeling measure campaigns in Washington and California and expects to be involved in opposing labeling here.
McCormick says it's premature to talk strategy for a measure that hasn't qualified for the ballot, but an attempt to marginalize GMO critics is likely. "It was puzzling and confusing how readily fluoride opponents dismissed the underlying science," he says.
Paige Richardson, a political consultant leading the labeling campaign, disagrees that there's an overlap between concerns about GMOs and fluoride. She says GMO labeling is more about disclosure than science.
"It's convenient for the corporations who are profiting from GMOs to label opponents as extremists," Richardson says, "but really we are just people who want to know what is in the food so we can decide to eat it or not."
Richardson has assessed why labeling failed in California and Washington and believes Oregon voter turnout in November will benefit the measure. She also thinks the labeling campaign will get its message out despite the money opponents may sink into their campaign.
"We will be outspent, but we'll have more voters participating in the conversation," Richardson says. "Oregonians are interested in transparency in lots of levels.â