Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 7, 2013) After organic seed farmers found genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets planted by Syngenta AG, a multinational Swiss corporation, within four miles of their farms, a local branch of GMO-Free Oregon filed a petition to ban GE crops in Jackson County. Farmers have already been forced to throw away seed or till under crops so they do not accidentally use GE tainted crops. GMO-Free Jackson County, which is located in the Southeast corner of the state of Oregon collected 6,700 signatures with the county’s election offices in an effort to place a ballot measure on the May 2014 primary ballot. 4,462 signatures are required to get on the ballot, but they must be reviewed by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to make sure they are valid first. If too many signatures are ruled invalid, organizers will have one year to gather more. Another chapter of GMO-Free Oregon, GMO-Free Benton County, which is located in the Willamette Valley, has also been working on a ban of GE crops in its county.
Allowing GE crops to be grown close to organic produce increases the risk of cross contamination, as pollen from GE crops has the potential to drift. If organic farmers’ crops become polluted with genetically engineered pollen, they may be subject to financial losses. Cross contamination has become a problem in Jackson County because the sugar beets that are being grown for Syngenta can cross pollinate with Swiss chard, which is grown for seed. Chard is in the same family as sugar beets and accepts beet pollen.
According to the Mail Tribune, Chuck Burr, a Jackson County farmer, had to throw away $4,700 worth of chard seed after learning it might have been contaminated with GE sugar beet pollen. Mr. Burr also believes that the geography of Oregon also makes cross pollination more likely. Mr. Burr argues that GE crops “should be limited to planting in wide open regions, such as the Great Plains, not in narrow valleys such as the Rogue Valley.”
Glenda Ponder of Abbie Lane Farm also told the Mail Tribune that the growth of GE sugar beets close to her farm “ties our hands for saving our chard seed and planting or selling it as organic. Selling organic seed is a good way to make money, but we can’t do it.”
Genetic drift also puts non-GE farmers risk of being sued for patent infringement by the company that manufactures the seed; if GE contamination is found on farms that do not grow genetically engineered crops, the farmer can be accused of using GE seed without paying for it. Beyond Pesticides is involved in litigation against Monsanto to preemptively protect farmers from this. The case, Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, challenges Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seed. In March 2012, plaintiffs appealed the District Court’s denial to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which scheduled oral argument in the case to be heard on January 10, 2013.
Oregon is no stranger to fights centered on genetic drift. In August of 2012, the Oregon Court of Appeals ordered a temporary halt to the state’s plan to allow GE canola to be planted in parts of the Willamette Valley, Oregon. The order has been in effect until the court rules on a lawsuit filed by opponents of GE canola planting who say it threatens the state’s $32 million specialty seed industry. The lawsuit and court order was in response to new rules, not subject to required public comment, that would allow for the planting of GE canola in areas previously deemed off-limits. Willamette Valley farmers who grow related plants for seeds to sell to production growers and gardeners feared canola will cross-pollinate with other crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and turnips, and that could contaminate their seeds.
Oregon may also be gearing up for a GE labeling fight similar to California’s recent Proposition 37. California’s proposition 37 would have required GE foods and processed food that contain GE ingredients to be labeled. Proposition 37, which received 4.2 million votes in support in the recent 2012 presidential election, lost by a 6.2% margin. After this defeat GMO Free Oregon submitted initial language for a proposed GE labeling measure that is similar to California’s proposition 37. If the measure proceeds through the state elections process smoothly GMO Free Oregon will be collecting signatures this summer to place the measure on the ballot for the upcoming November election. If the measure receives enough signatures this would be the second time in ten years Oregon voters will have weigh in on GE labeling.
In other states, a bill (SB 18) introduced by State Senator Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) in the New Mexico legislature will require labeling of foods containing GE crops, and in the state of Washington the sponsor of labeling Initiative 522 submitted more than the required number of signatures that will require the legislature to consider its adoption or place it on the ballot.
For more information on the environmental hazards associated with GE technology, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering webpage. Beyond Pesticides believes that it is important to fight for the integrity of organic food because of its human and environmental health benefits. For more information on how to fight for strong organic standards please visit our Keeping Organics Strong page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.