A cross breeding family of vegetables brings GMO issues home
By Kyle Curtis
Photos by John Valls
This spring, as the discovery of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) wheat in Oregon’s Columbia Basin caused Japan, Korea, and other Pacific Rim countries to defer millions of dollars in future Oregon wheat contracts, another GM battle was brewing in Salem.
After the Oregon Department of Agriculture proposed expanding canola production in the Willamette Valley, farmers in the $50 million specialty seed industry convinced Representative Sara Gelser to fire a retort. She introduced House Bill 2427 to extend the current “canola free” zone in the valley until 2019.
Seed farmers fear canola because once it arrives, there’s no way to stop this extremely promiscuous cross breeder from spreading its genes. As a member of the brassica family, the plant readily crossbreeds with such crops as broccoli, mustard and turnips. The USDA has determined that there is no difference between non-GM and GM canola. With more than 90 percent of North America’s canola crop genetically modified, farmers and advocates were concerned that GM canola would eventually crossbreed and diminish Oregon’s high-value seed crop for brassicas.
Oregon’s specialty seed industry is a fraction of the state’s wheat industry, but its products have an oversize impact on food systems here and abroad, providing the germ for a wide range of temperate crops, including the brassicas, beets and squash. Genetic contamination threatens that, because European and Asian growers will not accept GM seeds into their markets.
In the starkest terms, Takahashi Ishizaki of the Japan-based Tohoku Seed Company, told legislators this spring how his company, which sources 70 percent of its brassica seeds from the Willamette Valley, might simply cut Oregon out of the seed chain if canola arrived in Western Oregon. “If something is not done to provide long-term protection from canola then my company will immediately start looking for other places to produce our seeds,” Ishizaki said. “If canola production is allowed, it will just be a matter of time before we have a problem with physical seed contamination, increase of insects or disease pressure. These are the same problems that we have seen elsewhere in the world such as Europe, Australia and Southern California,” Ishizaki continued.
Farmers are scrambling to control the flow of genes among plants that are highly evolved to breed and grow.
As awareness of GM crops has risen, much attention and lawmaking has focused on GM labeling for food. In the weeks after the discovery of the GM wheat in Eastern Oregon, legislation requiring the labeling of GMOs passed the Vermont, Connecticut and Maine legislatures, and a similar initiative will be decided by voters this fall in Washington.
Labels are certainly powerful tools for raising awareness, but as Ishizaki pointed out, farms and the policies governing them are really the crucial battleground for GM issues. That’s where the fate of food is playing out, with farmers scrambling to control the flow of genes among plants that are highly evolved to breed and grow.
Battling for Seed Purity
Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still run Adaptive Seeds, a ten-acre, certified organic, specialty seed farm near the small town of Sweet Home.
A logging town roughly 30 miles east of Corvallis, Sweet Home now relies on a growing diversity of industries. Among the most prominent is the specialty seed industry. According to Kleeger, the wet, moderate climate in the Willamette Valley makes it one of the best places to grow seeds in the world. The niche that Kleeger and these other seed farms have carved out makes them competitive on a global scale.
Their best-selling variety is a brassica: The Russian Hunger Gap kale, which they introduced into the United States from Europe.
“We are talking a high-value crop that compares favorably with any seeds grown anywhere else in the world,” Kleeger says. In her view, that makes seed crops worth protecting against GM dilution, and a clear case for keeping canola out. “Canola grows well everywhere; specialty seeds don’t,” she said. And, she says, there would be a swift end to seed farms currently in operation if GM canola arrived in the valley: “They would virtually disappear overnight.”
However, some farmers in the valley are interested in exploiting marginal lands to grow canola. The plant grows well on primarily dry cropland lacking irrigation, which describes Kathy Hadley’s 850 acres in Rickreall, just west of Salem. “At my farm, water isn’t a ‘given’—which is perfect for canola!” Hadley says. “As a rotation crop, canola makes it easier to control weeds.”
Hadley also noted the improvement in soil structure after introducing canola, which requires no tilling, on her farm in 2008 and 2009 as part of an Oregon State University experiment to test its commercial potential. A lack of renewed funding by the Oregon legislature in 2009 discontinued OSU’s tests, and Hadley has been prohibited from growing canola on her land since. Her experience working with OSU led Hadley to believe that canola can coexist in the Willamette Valley with other brassica crops.
“Non-GMO canola seeds can be ordered from Europe, which bans genetically modified crops,” Hadley points out. She also notes that it’s pointless to grow GM canola—primarily modified for drought resistance—in the Willamette Valley. “We don’t need a drought-resistant canola gene in the Willamette Valley and non-GM canola actually provides more of a yield.”
Long grown for human consumption as vegetable oil, canola has gained new attention in recent years due to growing demand for biofuel. Biodiesel benchmarks in the United States and Europe promise an expanded global market. However, despite federal and Oregon subsidies, food markets have recently provided the most reliable price.
“The cost per pound of food-grade canola has been 30 cents a pound,” Hadley notes. “As a biofuel, the price was 23 cents per pound, even with the Oregon tax credit [which was recently eliminated]. Now, without the subsidy, no canola from the valley would go towards biofuels.”
In GM Territory, Frontier Law
In early July 2013, HB 2427 passed the Oregon Legislature, extending the canola ban in the Willamette Valley’s protected zone. Governor John Kitzhaber’s signature on the bill would put the future of canola as an oilseed crop in the Willamette Valley—and Kathy Hadley’s hope for a new market—in serious doubt. Anti-GM groups and brassica seed farmers, like Kleeger of Adaptive Seed, are breathing a sigh of relief.
However, the debate over the presence of GM crops in agricultural land throughout the state continues. In a strange twist, a group of Willamette Valley sugar beet seed farmers, who provide nearly all of the sugar beet seed stock in the United States, lobbied against GM canola being introduced in the Willamette Valley, even as they earned millions from GM sugar beet seed sales. Their continued use of modified crops is being challenged by activists in Lane and Benton counties, who have initiated petitions for GM-free measures there.
Meanwhile, a group of activists and organic farmers in Jackson County stepped up efforts to establish a GM-free area of their own, specifically to exclude the type of sugar beets propagated by the farms in the Willamette Valley. Much like brassicas, sugar beets can interbreed with other varieties of beets and chard. In 2012, after the Swedish company Syngenta was discovered growing GM sugar beets on a Jackson County farm, a group called GMO Free Jackson County gathered signatures to prevent the spread of modified beets south into Jackson County. So far, they have successfully collected enough signatures to put a measure on the 2014 ballot that would prohibit the growing of genetically modified organisms within the county. Meanwhile, tensions are running high over the existing Syngenta crop: In June, saboteurs destroyed 6,500 plants on the site.
“The regulatory framework regarding GMOs is in need of a complete overhaul.”
While the groundswell around GM-free zone designations continues to build, some advocacy organizations note that a clear, strong regulatory framework on GM crops is still lacking. The Port Townsend, Washington-based Organic Seed Alliance, a nonprofit seeking to advance the “ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed,” is adamant that it’s the USDA that needs to establish clear rules on GM crop production.
“The regulatory framework regarding GMOs is in need of a complete overhaul,” says Kristina Hubbard, the Alliance’s director of communications. Hubbard suggests that if the federal, or even the state, government had the regulatory muscle to oversee the production of GM crops, it would’ve been easier to find a solution to the issue of canola in the Willamette Valley. “There has never been a new law that effectively addresses what we believe are novel organisms. Although the USDA claims otherwise, we believe that GMOs are materially different than conventional crops, as they are derived from a set of technologies that produce a new organism not to be found in nature.”
While a designation around what constitutes a GM variety may bring some clarity to the situation, it still doesn’t define who is responsible the next time a GM-free beet gets a little too friendly with its modified relative. For the foreseeable future, it’s up to GM-free farmers to keep their crops clean.
“The costly burden—including testing and containment measures—falls solely on the shoulders of those who wish to avoid GMOs,” Hubbard says.
Kyle Curtis is a freelance writer based out of Portland and a coordinator of Food Day Oregon on October 24. He is interested in where our food comes from and how it ends up on our plate. fooddayoregon.com