By Bennett Hall
Organic seed producer Frank Morton has been warning people for years that genetically modified organisms pose a serious threat to the Willamette Valley’s vegetable seed industry.
Now he thinks his worst GMO nightmare may be coming true.
Roundup Ready sugarbeets – a patented variety engineered by Monsanto to tolerate the company’s widely used Roundup herbicide – have turned up in a soil mixture being sold to gardeners at a Corvallis landscaping supply business just a few miles from Morton’s fields.
He fears some of those roots may now be sprouting in area gardens. If so, they could soon start to bolt, sending out clouds of pollen that could fertilize his crop of golden chard – a closely related plant – and render it worthless for the organic seed market. It would also negate years of breeding that went into producing an especially cold-hardy line.
Worse still, Morton says, the GMO sugarbeets could cross-pollinate the fields of other chard growers in the area who supply seed to major bagged-salad distributors in California, potentially introducing genetically modified chard into the food system without the approval of federal regulators.
“I’d say we’ve got maybe two weeks to find it before it starts shedding pollen,” Morton said. “I think we’ve got a ticking time bomb on our hands.”
This is exactly the kind of problem Morton was hoping to head off in court.
Last year, at Morton’s instigation, the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club, the Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Organic Seeds filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over Roundup Ready sugarbeets. Morton is a member of the Center for Food Safety and sits on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance.
The lawsuit, now before a federal judge in California, contends that USDA officials violated federal law when they deregulated the genetically modified sugarbeets in 2005 and asks for an injunction to halt their planting, sale or distribution.
Commercial cultivation of Roundup Ready beets, the plaintiffs claim, could contaminate organic seed stocks, harm consumers, and damage the environment by encouraging increased use of Roundup herbicide.
The USDA is contesting the suit.
All of this mattered to Morton because he wanted to keep genetically modified beets out of his own back yard.
The Willamette Valley is the source of virtually all of the sugarbeet seed produced in the United States, but until recently, all of that seed was conventionally grown.
Now, however, the big Midwestern growers that dominate the industry are demanding beets that can tolerate Roundup, and Willamette Valley sugarbeet seed producers are acting to oblige their customers.
“Right out of the gate, they screwed up,” Morton said. “All along they’ve been talking about their impeccable seed-protection practices, and the first year they try to go 100 percent Roundup Ready production, they’ve already had an accident.”
Genetically modified crops are a contentious subject in the Willamette Valley, a highly productive farming region where a wide variety of seed crops are grown.
The most important of these is grass seed, a half-billion-dollar industry for the state, but others are big business as well.
Vegetable and flower seeds posted gross sales of $22.5 million in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, and sugarbeet seed generated $3.5 million.
Purity is essential to seed producers because the marketplace demands it. Homeowners don’t want weeds sprouting in a freshly planted lawn, and backyard gardeners don’t want pink radishes growing from a bag of white radish seed.
Pickiest of all are organic gardeners, who pay a premium for seed certified to come from plants grown without chemicals – and without genetic engineering. Even a small amount of GMO content would cost a batch of seeds its organic certification.
“There’s a large portion of the population that wants nothing to do with genetically modified foods,” Morton said. “If we get one in 10,000 (seeds), we consider that contaminated. Our customers will not buy it.”
That sort of contamination, Morton said, could deal a heavy blow to his company, Wild Garden Seeds of Philomath, a small venture that had about $170,000 in sales last year. The business produces about 150 seed varieties, all organic, and employs five full-time workers, plus seasonal help.
In addition to ruining his chard crop, Morton said, GMO contamination could damage his reputation – and could potentially harm the reputation of all organic growers in the Willamette Valley.
“In the organic seed industry, the watchword is integrity,” he said, “and that means zero tolerance for GMO presence in the seed.”
Cross-pollination can be a problem for all seed growers – organic, conventional or genetically modified. To guard against possible tainting of seed crops, the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association has devised an elaborate system of isolation zones.
Farmers use stick pins flagged with squares of colored paper to mark the locations of sensitive crops on one of two “pinning maps” – one for the south valley, one for the north – kept at the Linn and Marion County offices of the Oregon State University Extension Service.
The association has established minimum isolation distances between crops. GMO sugarbeets, for instance, can’t be grown within three miles of any related species, including table beets, fodder beets and chard.
Dan McGrath, an Extension agent in the Linn County office, said it’s a good system. The growers respect each other’s isolation zones, work with the association to resolve disputes and take all responsible precautions, sanitizing their fields after harvest and taking care to prevent seed spills during transport.
“It’s pretty well organized,” McGrath said. “The possibility of cross-contamination is pretty low.”
Of course, the system only works as long as the plants stay where they’re put.
On May 6, OSU weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith was notified that a soil mixture being sold at Pro Bark in west Corvallis contained sugarbeet roots. The next day Mallory-Smith obtained a sample and confirmed the mix included viable sugarbeet roots, some of which tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene.
Because the roots could sprout and produce pollen, they could cross-pollinate related species, introducing the Roundup Ready gene to non-GMO crops that could spread it even further.
“It’s happened in the past with corn (and) it’s happened in the past with canola,” Mallory-Smith said.
Not only does that pose a risk to organic seed producers like Morton, she said, it would also be viewed with alarm by organic gardeners and others opposed to genetic engineering.
“This is an emotional issue in a lot of ways,” Mallory-Smith said. “It’s a scientific issue, but it has a lot of social implications and its has a lot of economic implications.”
Julie Jackson, who owns Pro Bark with her husband, Jeff, said the couple had no idea there was any viable plant material in the mix or they would never have sold it.
She said the soil mixture – a product called Fertile Mix – had been removed from sale but wouldn’t say where it was now or how much was sold to the public. She said the soil that went into the mix came from several sources and she didn’t know which might have been the origin of the beet roots.
“As far as we knew, we were just recycling potting soil,” Jackson said. “We thought we were doing somebody else a favor and they thought they were doing us a favor, and it turns out to have been unwise on somebody’s part.”
There are lots of farmers in the valley who grow sugarbeet seed, but all of the production is under contract to two companies: West Coast Beet Seed Co. in Salem, and Betaseed in Tangent. So far, neither has come forward to take responsibility for the GMO beet roots that got away, even though numbered tags found with the roots could probably be used to identify the source.
One reason for their reticence is the Center for Food Safety suit.
When asked which company was the source of the problem, Greg Loberg of West Coast Beet Seed declined to comment.
“We’re not going to talk about that,” he said. “There’s active litigation.”
Phone calls to Betaseed officials were not returned last week.
Likewise, the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association – which counts both organic seed producers like Morton and the two sugarbeet seed companies among its membership – is staying out of the fray for now.
“We’re trying to wait for this litigation to get done so we can talk about it more freely and set up some precautions,” said Craig Armbrust, the association’s president.
But he acknowledged that GMOs are a hot button topic for members and said the group is taking an official stand on another genetically modified crop.
“I can tell you that for the brassicas – cabbage – our position is to keep GMOs out,” Armbrust said.
Lawsuit or no lawsuit, Morton wants somebody to tidy up the biotech mess on his doorstep before his worst fears are realized.
Whoever’s responsible for allowing Roundup Ready sugarbeets to get into gardening soil, Morton believes, needs to track down everybody who bought some and recover the roots before they start shedding genetically altered pollen.
“I just think the GMOs are too difficult to contain,” he said. “Everybody said it couldn’t possibly happen, and I say when mistakes do happen, there has to be a way to clean them up.”
Bennett Hall can be reached at [email protected] or 758-9529.