‘Everything I said to my fellow seedsmen, the judge has now agreed with’

Capital Press
By Mitch Lies

PHILOMATH, Ore. — Frank Morton said he was told he should sue the USDA if he didn’t like Roundup Ready sugar beet seed being produced in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

“I was literally told three times that if you don’t like that, you’ll have to sue USDA,” Morton said.

In January 2008, the Philomath-area organic vegetable seed grower contacted the Center for Food Safety and helped instigate the suit that has put in question the future of transgenic sugar beet production.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White, a Bush-administration appointee, last week ruled the USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to prepare an environmental impact statement before deregulating the genetically engineered beets in 2005.

White has scheduled an Oct. 30 meeting to discuss remedies. The Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice are expected to ask for an injunction banning new plantings until USDA can complete the environmental assessment.

Morton said his primary objective was protecting his business.

“This is not a political concern,” he said. “I was concerned that contamination events would begin to occur that would make my seed worthless.”

And, he said, the suit was not his first choice.

Morton, a member of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association, said he approached the association several times with his concerns.

“I thought we should be talking about this as an association, and I wanted to talk about this and talk about the impact of having genetically modified crops be a part of the specialty seed mix here in the valley.

“But no one wanted to talk about it,” he said. “It was almost like it was an off-limits subject.”

Morton said he was worried the genetically engineered seed crop would cross-pollinate with his organic red chard and table beets.

But he was unable to learn where transgenic beets were being planted.

“They did not want to put on the pin that it was genetically engineered,” he said, referring to a pinning system growers use to distinguish where vegetable seed crops are produced.

“This is something we don’t share with our seed-growing neighbors that I think we should — whether a crop is genetically engineered or not,” he said. “My market doesn’t have any tolerance for this.

“I have to test my seed before I sell it and if I ever get a positive for genetic engineering traits, then my seed crops are worthless,” he said.

White’s order Sept. 21 has extensive implications for an industry already transitioned to beets genetically bred with resistance to Roundup herbicide. About 95 percent of the 1.16 million acres of sugar beets planted this year in the United States were Roundup Ready, industry officials said.

In the Willamette Valley, upwards of 3,000 acres of Roundup Ready sugar beet seed is already in the ground.

Morton has little sympathy for companies and growers who planted Roundup Ready beet seed this year. It was obvious, he said, the judge was going to rule against the USDA, and sugar beet companies and growers should have anticipated the ruling.

“They painted themselves into a corner with a spray paint can,” he said. “If there is no beet sugar (next year), it’s not my fault and it’s not the judge’s fault.”

Morton produces organic seed under the brand name Wild Garden Seed. In addition to organic chard and table beets, he grows squash and several brassica crop seeds.

“I do feel vindicated,” he said, “because everything I said to my fellow seedsmen, the judge has now agreed with.”

Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: mlies@capitalpress.com.

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