The Oregonian
Scott Learn

Critics of genetically modified crops have warned about “frankenfood” and “superweeds” for years. But today, more than four-fifths of the nation’s corn, cotton and soybean crops are altered to resist pesticides and insects.

Now Frank Morton, a 53-year-old organic seed farmer in Philomath, and other activists are plowing new legal ground in the battle, charging that genetically modified crops will spread and contaminate organic crops.

Morton’s beef is with sugar beet seeds that scientists with agricultural giant Monsanto have tweaked to resist Roundup, the company’s most popular weed killer.

Oregon doesn’t grow many sugar beets, which supply half of the nation’s sugar. But it turns out the Willamette Valley is nearly the sole supplier of U.S. sugar beet seeds.

In the past two years, the humble commodity crop has quietly become the valley’s first to incorporate genetic engineering wholesale.

Morton worries that sugar beet pollen can cross-fertilize table beet and Swiss chard plants, both of which he grows for seed. Each sugar beet flower contains thousands of pollen granules, and researchers have found the windblown pollen miles in the air and miles away from its home field.

“Who’s responsible if it isn’t on a leash?” says Morton, sunburned, earnest and blunt. “I’m a certified organic seed grower, and if (his crops) were to get contaminated with any detectable amount of transgenic sugar beet pollen, my product becomes worthless.”

Earlier this year, activists including Morton filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop Roundup Ready sugar beets. A similar suit that included an eastern Oregon alfalfa grower among its plaintiffs has stopped Roundup Ready alfalfa in its tracks.

Morton began organic farming in the Willamette Valley 20 years ago, growing lettuce varieties for restaurants. He considers it a moral obligation to keep his seeds free of contamination from transgenic crops.

That’s why he was stunned to learn in December 2006 that sugar beet seeds with a protein inserted to resist Roundup were coming to the Willamette Valley.

The Department of Agriculture restricts the spread of genetically modified crops when they’re being tested. Oregon has witnessed that: The department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service fined The Scotts Co. $500,000 last November after Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass spread during field trials in Jefferson County.

Limited tracking

But once the service declares a transgenic crop safe, granting it “unregulated status,” it treats the crop as identical to any other plant. No one tracks whether it’s spreading into conventional or organic crops, said John Cordts, a biotechnologist with the inspection service who wrote the environmental assessment for deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2005.

Cordts noted that U.S. organic standards don’t require organic farmers to test for the presence of genetically modified strains — only to make good-faith efforts to avoid them.

The valley has long used “isolation distances” between crops to prevent cross-pollination, and Morton says testing indicates that his crops haven’t been contaminated yet.

But the contamination of organics and other nongenetically modified crops is a tough issue, Cordts said — one the service isn’t set up to address.

“Our regulatory authority focuses on plant pest risk or the potential for environmental damage,” he said. “We understand the issues associated with organic protection, but with our regulatory authority there’s not a whole lot we can do.”

Alfalfa case

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer was sympathetic to organic and conventional farmers’ arguments in the alfalfa case, whose plaintiffs included Geertson Seed Farms of Adrian. Last year, Breyer ordered the USDA to upgrade its environmental analysis.

Eliminating the ability to grow nontransgenic crops — or to eat them — is an “undesirable consequence,” Breyer wrote.

The USDA needs to analyze “whether there is some risk to engineering all of America’s crops to include the gene that confers resistance to glyphosate,” the active ingredient in Roundup, the judge said.

Monsanto and sugar beet farmers say the concerns are overwrought. The company tried a decade ago to market a Roundup Ready variety, but Hershey’s and other big customers balked, fearing a consumer backlash.

This time U.S. sugar refiners and their customers are on board, said Tom Schwartz, executive vice president of the Beet Sugar Development Foundation. (Monsanto referred questions to Schwartz.)

A change of heart

In part, the change of heart is because the sugar crystal itself contains no remnants of the genetically modified protein or DNA and poses no dietary risk, Schwartz said.

In part it’s because most U.S. consumers have put up little fuss as genetically modified crops have expanded. Critics blame that on weaker disclosure laws than in Europe and Japan, where concern about GMO crops is greater.

“Many of our customers’ products contain corn, soy or cotton oil,” Schwartz said. “They’ve already got a transgenic product in them.”

Roundup use soars on Roundup Ready crops, growers concede. But use of more environmentally damaging herbicides drops. And frequent crop rotation, including rotation to non-Roundup Ready crops, can help prevent weeds from developing resistance to Roundup.

Growers raised small amounts of Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2006 and 2007. But the big switchover came this year, when about 60 percent of sugar beet growers chose transgenic seed, said Luther Markwart, vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.

No organic sugar beets are grown in the United States, and the two-year cycle of the plant, with the sugar beet root harvested before the plant flowers, makes contamination unlikely, supporters of GM crops say.

But preventing contamination is tougher when growing seeds. Some advocates say small amounts of contamination — less than 1 percent — are likely and organic standards should allow for that.

Schwartz said his group is “totally confident that GM and non-GM varieties can coexist in the Willamette Valley.” He declined to give specifics because of the lawsuit.

Opponents acknowledge short-term advantages of the modified crop. But they say experience with corn crops indicates that weeds will become more resistant as farmers rely more on Roundup, requiring heavier doses of herbicides to control the “superweeds.”

Roundup less harmful

In its application to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets, Monsanto said four glyphosate-resistant weeds had been identified. The company said it worked with local scientists to control them.

Roundup is less harmful to wildlife and fish than many other herbicides. But critics say farmers are using far more herbicides than in the past, and the long-term effects are unclear.

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted Monsanto’s request to increase allowable glyphosate residues 50-fold on sugar beet roots, to 10 parts per million. The agency said that was still well below unsafe levels.

Willamette Valley sugar beet seed growers contacted by The Oregonian declined to talk on the record. Bart Edwards, president of Specialty Seed Growers of Western Oregon, said the group has members on both sides of the issue: Regulators are “going to need the wisdom of Solomon to solve this problem.”

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