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GMOs At The Door  

Frank Morton

My attitude toward Genetically Engineered crops has generally been to ignore them, assuming that the Biotech industry would fall on its own sword—its stock investment value—as the investors realized that consumers would avoid GMOs in their food. The fall of the New Leaf GM-potato upon its rejection by McDonalds (Monsanto withdrew it from the market), was a clear demonstration of consumer power to move the largest scale corporate plans. Since the withering of New Leaf, Monsanto has overhauled its business strategy and taken its stock from single to triple digits by realizing that consumers will eat transgenic food crops only if they don’t know what they are eating. The current Monsanto business model is to pursue the processed food and animal feed markets for its GE-products. If the final product looks like an identifiable food organism, Monsanto does not wish to be its owner, and is happy to allow other bioengineering firms to break that ice with consumers.

Corn, soy, canola, and cotton have been the Biotech ag-industrial hits thus far. In these crops, Monsanto and Biotech have overcome consumer objection by pure stealth, avoiding labeling and public oversight at every turn in the United States. The fact that production of these GM ag-dustrial foodstuffs has now well out-stretched conventional versions of the crop species, can only be attributed to the fact that consumers have no way to avoid GMOs except by purchasing Certified Organic products. If a "NON-GMO Certified" label emerges, as a choice distinct from Certified Organic, I still believe we would see these trends in Biotech-stock fortunes make a sudden reversal. Witness the recent run from Monsanto’s Prosilac (rBST) by dairy cooperatives, once consumers had their say. The investment rating for Monsanto stock is CC—the most risk-laden class for investment.

I never considered what the next obvious industrial food input would be for Monsanto conquest, but it turns out to be in my backyard. Funny how this focuses the attention. Sugar. The sweetness of Beta vulgaris, sugar beets, rules in my valley. The Willamette Valley is a world class place to grow seeds for specialty crops, including the Brassica Family, Alliums, Umbels, Chicories and Endives, every kind of flower, and the Spinach and Beet Family. Virtually all of America’s sugar beet seed is produced in the Willamette Valley by two companies (north and south valley). These companies serve the needs of the US Beet Sugar industry; seven companies that process beet-sugar from crops grown in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the entire Upper Midwest. American Crystal is the largest of these sugar processors, and often serves as messenger for the industry. This is one tight "bidness-unit," as they might say in Texas. The sugar beet seed companies grow precisely what their (few) customers want.

Suddenly, American Crystal and every other beet sugar producer (7 totaled) wants Roundup Ready sugar beets. This unanimity was essential, and without it, the move to introduce RR-beet sugar would not have been made. If any one of these beet processors, or a major candy company, had rejected the notion of Biotech beets, the introduction would not have moved forward. This was a concerted movement to "genetically modify" an entire sector of the processed food industry simultaneously and without holdouts that might otherwise have provided a source of conventional beet sugar to fulfill Non-GMO consumer demand. The initial stages of GM-beet seed production here in Oregon were carried out in secrecy for at least two years without other Beta vulgaris seed growers hereabouts having any knowledge or notification that GMOs were in the air, literally. There were no articles about this in the region’s ag-weekly newspaper, nor the business pages of the town papers in the heart of the valley. A farming technology revolution went on silently for three years, and was definitely not televised, or bragged about. The Oregon Dept. of Agriculture did not ask for public comments, nor give any notifications to anyone about anything related to this GM-event, because (my contact said) it defers to the USDA on all matters related to biotech. From the ODA perspective, if USDA said GMO sugar beets were deregulated, then their impact on Oregon agriculture must be negligible or irrelevant to the State’s farmers and rural economy. In fact, sugar beet breeding lines (presumably, some of them transgenic in recent years) are often produced in small patches spread along rural routes outside of prime sugar beet production areas. We now know that these breeding patches share the air with prime longstanding isolations for organic Beta seed production in the Rogue River Valley, and probably the Willamette as well. The potential for crossing between experimental genetics and commercial organic seed crops is magnified in these narrow valleys outside the range of the Isolation Pinning Map.

When first deregulated by APHIS/USDA in the mid-90’s, Roundup Ready sugar beets were rejected by beet sugar buyers—the Hershey and Mars candy companies in particular—and Monsanto was unable, in the end, to sell its Roundup Ready package to the industry. Nearly all American beet sugar is used by American food processors. It is not an item of trade with Japan or the EU, so the American processor standard sets the American beet sugar industry standards. If US beet sugar were an export commodity, with EU and Asian Rim customers, the move to GM-beet sugar would still be on hold, since these markets either forbid GMOs in food or have labeling requirements for GM ingredients. For some reason, even genetic engineering’s most fervent proponents do not want consumers to know when we are eating their prideful piece of work.

So what’s the problem with RR-beets for sugar anyway? There are no proteins in sucrose, so sucrose is sucrose...If only the issue was one of sugar sources for candy, or of sugar beet growers suddenly under Monsanto contracts (from Oregon seed growers to Midwestern root growers). Those are issues, as is the increase in use of Roundup that is part of the GE-package plan, the effect of this additional glyphosate on soil ecology, the health of sprayed crops and successive crops (more disease susceptibility), the mortality to tadpoles from waterborne Roundup, and other collateral damage caused by the spray aspects of the technology. I’ll leave these for others to reflect upon. For the rest of this essay, I will limit my comments to the direct effects this silent biotech beet coup is having on my life, the future of organic seed production in my valley, and the future of the Willamette Valley specialty seed industry and its growers.

The Willamette Valley is a world class place to grow seeds, and I love to say that..., because few people realize what a rare thing it is to find an ideal seed production location. Middle latitude, fertile soils, mild wet winters, moderate dry summers, ample irrigation water, a predictable long dry harvest window, and very short agricultural history, distinguish our Valley from most others. Seed dreamland.

The local specialty seed industry has worked together for decades to keep the Valley’s reputation as a sanitary and well-regulated production zone intact. We Valley seedfolk maintain a system of pollen isolations between crops through cooperative "Pinning Maps" that show locations of seed fields identified by crop species, type, and production company. There are "Isolation Rules" that proscribe required distances between pollinating fields of the same species, and a means of establishing and maintaining "isolation seniority." All of these measures are intended to keep our seed clean, true, and high quality.

Recently, our industry worked together with fresh vegetable producers in the WV to prevent unregulated biofuel canola from moving into the Valley and other specialty seed production areas of the State; this to prevent cross-pollination and disease issues between broad-scale canola for oil, and Brassica seed and veg production. During the long (and still ongoing) campaign to prevent a low value new crop (biofuel canola) from threatening an established hi-value seed industry, the issue of GM-canola and the well-known GM-contamination of all conventional canola seed stocks was a recurring theme. It was clear, not even the Oregon Department of Agriculture wanted to have any Roundup Ready canola in the valley, and everyone that testified on the canola issue at ODA from either side said that RR-canola would be forbidden and unwelcome on Willamette Valley farms.

I was lucky enough to be part of the public comment and testimony on this issue in December of 2007 at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and I was lucky enough to be near the last to speak. I was able to recount in my testimony the number of times that the public and the seed industry and ODA had reiterated the particularly problematic nature of cross-contamination by GM-crops—especially the danger that GMO contamination can present for trade and the marketing of quality high value crops, and I stressed that this is especially true for Certified Organic seed crops. Then I remarked at the irony that the specialty seed association was aware that one of our own had just converted 95% of its 2008 crop to Roundup Ready technology, but no one had bothered to mention that as they bashed Roundup Ready contamination by biofuel canola. The room sure got quiet right then. I guess I let a family secret out in the public square.

The Willamette Valley has a limited amount of space. Sugar beets take up most of it, as regards the area available to grow Beta vulgaris seed. Around the margins there is a growing seed industry for Swiss chard, much of which is now supplying the salad trade for baby-cut greens. A small amount of this is organic production. There are many areas where chard and sugar beet isolations are rubbing up against one another, and of course, they freely cross-pollinate because they are the same species. The current isolation distance is considered adequate to maintain seed quality except in one aspect. The sugar beet industry says its research shows that 6 miles would be the proper distance for the isolation standard separating GM-beets from conventional beets or chard, and they have requested this standard from the seed association. The chard producers (and organic seed producers I know) would have most of their isolations overtaken by this expansion of sugar beet dominion, and were not willing to make this concession to the sugar beet industry’s need to protect itself from lawsuits over transgenic contamination, which was the motivation. At this time there is an incoherence between the beet industry research and the seed association’s standards for pollen isolation of genetically modified beets.

This points directly at one of the unaccounted-for costs of the introduction of genetic engineering into an existing natural (non-GMO) seed production environment. The consequences of transgenic cross-contamination are much different than the consequences of natural cross-contamination, legally and economically. Moreover, a grower cannot see transgenic "rogues" as we can see consequential natural "rogues" in our normal crops. Until it is detected by genetic testing, genetic pollution spreads without a visible marker.

Organic seed growers of Beta vulgaris in the WV have a new production expense. We must now test our chard and table beet seed for transgenic contamination—every lot, every year, ad nauseum, paying an expense on account of a technology that we deplore, that will have destroyed the value of our crop if we get positive results to our tests. Clearly, no fair minded people thought this through when this technology was deregulated, nor when our fellow seed association members pursued their field trials and initial stages of seed multiplications without the rest of the industry being made aware. Now, the sugar beet seed fields of Oregon are planted to 95% GMO-crop, and the industry’s best offer has been to increase its own isolation zone of influence.

This is not as simple as biotech vs organic seed. My conventional chard and table beet seed farming friends feel threatened as well, because they know their buyers don’t want GMO contamination. Nobody considered that Roundup Ready sugar beet in one generation might turn up as Roundup Ready salad greens in the next. My conventional seed-farming friends also know this is just the first seed species of commercial significance to go transgenic; next it will surely be Bt-Brassica, and RR-Radish and Onion and Spinach...there is a sense of inevitability that soon everything will go GM, and what isn’t designed as a GMO will soon be contaminated by it. No holdouts. No clean harbors. Everyone will be washed by the same dirty bath.

There are seed production measures that can be taken to keep GMO pollen from threatening neighboring crops. Some are so obvious that it seems negligent to have not employed them, like using male-sterile maternal lines to carry the RR-genes (so no RR-pollen is created) in the hybrid seed production process (all GM-sugar beets are F1 hybrids). My first simple suggestion to the valley industry association was that GM-crops be "Pinned" as such on the isolation maps—just as the map currently indicates OP vs Hybrid. This was instantly voted down by the seed association with a remark from the floor, "Not as long as ecoterrorism is a fact of life."

The other obvious measure to be taken involves routine monitoring of non-gmo crops—the matter of who pays for this endless process is an issue. I have circulated a modest proposal to monitor baseline transgenic contamination as it presently occurs between conventional and GM-beets in the region, and to have the entire seed industry foot the bill. Data collected by this process could be used by the industry to demonstrate to the world that we still care about the genetic integrity of our Willamette Valley seed, and though we have GMOs in our midst, we’re watching them. A protocol for this monitoring program has been submitted to the valley specialty seed association, the seed growers association, and researchers at Oregon State University. Without the cooperation of all these parties, such a monitoring program cannot proceed. At present, a majority of the seed industry has elected not to participate in such an initiative.

"So, what are we gonna do?" has been the rhetorical question...around this local issue since it began coming into semi-open discussion last spring. Some parties have asked it cynically, like there is nothing to be done. Others meant, "Can anything be done?" I asked it aloud as part of a Portland Slow Food presentation last November, and I admit it was meant to attract attention among an influential set of consumers. Within the week I was on the phone with a law student who knew the right people to do something about this issue, and I sent her to Organic Seed Alliance. In a couple of months we had developed a group of plaintiffs ready to sue the USDA/APHIS for failure to follow the Government’s own environmental laws in the process of deregulating GM-beet. The winning precedent for our complaint is the recent Roundup Ready Alfalfa case from California. This step was a last step to be taken to protect an industry and our business from introgression of genetic pollution into the Valley.

Even under the best of circumstances, this legal action will not end the struggle with Biotech advocates. These folks are flush with Wall Street money, and in pursuit of more of it, will eventually buy their way into any system that lacks consumer choice. The Biotech business plan requires a lack of choice to be successful, because consumers would rather NOT support squeezing more from a cow, or biopesticides in their food, or more glyphosate killing more amphibians. Consumer choice is possible only through labeling of GMO products, and we should demand this of the new Administration and it’s Congress. In the meanwhile, there is a Non-GMO Label initiative in the works, and just talking about it is probably enough to give a candy company pause.

Dear Mr. Mars, Is there any chance your brand will join the Non-GM Candy Label?

OSGATA, the Organic Seed Growers And Trade Association is a new advocacy group for organic seed issues, like GM-contamination. It is composed of seed growers, seed companies, related industries, and breeding professionals that have a stake in organic seed as an emerging realm of rural work, global business, and vital research, including breeding for organic farm ecosystems. OSGATA has coalesced from a need for organic seed to have it’s own clear voice, and for the growers of that seed to have a leading role in directing the priorities of the organic seed industry as it develops. Its Bylaws include a code of seed ethics, which is included on the membership agreement and application form. No seed-evil allowed if you want to speak for the seed through OSGATA membership, and that includes NO selling, growing, or breeding GM seeds. Farmers, gardeners, and seed consumers at all levels can join OSGATA as associate members, lending their voice to OSGATA as we lobby on the State and Federal level for research money toward organic plant breeding, organic seed production research, and organic seed technology for organic farming systems.

I’ve accepted the honor of being our first President. Now I’m off to plant more crops.

That’s what we’re gonna do.

Printed in the 2008 Wild Garden Seed Catalog.

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