The US sugar beet industry coordinated an industry-wide conversion to genetically modified sugar beets, thus eliminating a non-GMO alternative for food manufacturers and consumers. Meanwhile, production of GM sugar beet seed is likely to contaminate organic and conventional vegetable seed production in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Frank Morton faces a major threat to his livelihood. Morton’s business, Wild Garden Seed, which sells organic vegetable and flower seed in Philomath, Oregon, is threatened by the incursion of genetically modified sugar beets in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley is known as a center of seed production. The valley features fertile soil with ample water from irrigation. Winters are mild and wet and summers are dry, and not too hot. Seeds for specialty crops such as the Brassica family, which includes cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard seed, and canola are grown here, along with onions, spinach, beets, chicories, endives, chard, and many flowers. “It’s seed dreamland,” Morton says.
Unanimous decision to go GMO
The Willamette Valley is also home to all the sugar beet seed production in the United States.
Two large companies, Beta Seed and West Coast Beet Seed, supply seed to sugar beet farmers in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, North Dakota, and other states where the beets are grown. Harvested beets are processed by seven processing companies, the biggest being American Crystal Sugar Company, based in Moorhead, Minnesota. These processors supply beet sugar, which accounts for one-half of the US sugar production, to food and candy manufacturers, such as Mars and Hershey’s.
Three years ago, these processors decided to convert the entire US sugar beet production to Roundup Ready genetically modified varieties, developed by Monsanto Company. The industry said farmers needed the GM beets for better weed control.
Unanimity was necessary, Morton says. “If any one of the beet processors or a major candy company had rejected the idea of GM beets, the introduction would not have gone ahead.”
Unlike corn and soybean production where non-GMO alternatives are available, the sugar beet processors did not want that option.
“This was a coordinated effort 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,” Morton says.
Stealth introduction in the Valley
Field trials of the GM beets began in the Willamette Valley in 2005—quietly, Morton says. “The initial stages of GM beet seed production were carried out in secrecy for at least two years without other sugar beet seed growers having any knowledge or notification that GMOs were in the air, literally,” he says.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) did not ask for public comments nor notify anyone about the trials. “A farming technology revolution went on silently for three years, and was definitely not televised, or bragged about,” Morton says.
Restricted GM canola
The Willamette Valley specialty seed industry has a tradition of ensuring seed purity. Seed producers adhere to requirements for isolation distances between crops to prevent cross pollination. Vegetable seed must be 100% pure.
“We take purity seriously,” Morton says.
When some farmers wanted to introduce GM canola for biofuel production in the valley, the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association (WVSSA) worked with the ODA to restrict plantings. The Rapeseed Control Areas rules aim to protect specialty vegetable seed production from cross pollination by GM canola.
At a hearing at the ODA, Morton pointed out a double standard with the restriction of GM canola and the allowance of GM sugar beets. “I remarked at the irony that one of our own (seed association) members had just converted 95% of its 2008 crop to Roundup Ready technology, but no one bothered to mention that as they bashed Roundup Ready contamination by biofuel canola,” he says.
“Contamination is inevitable”
Cross pollination between GM sugar beets and related plants, such as chard and table beets, is a major threat in the valley where sugar beets are the predominant crop. Morton says there are many areas where chard and sugar beet fields are “rubbing up against one another.” The two plants cross pollinate because they are the same species.
Sugar beet seed producers wanted to establish a six-mile isolation distance between GM sugar beets and non-GM crops in the valley, based on research showing such a distance was necessary to keep GMO contamination down to .01%. They wanted the distance to protect themselves from potential lawsuits in case of contamination problems.
Morton says such a distance would be impossible to achieve, given the size of the Willamette Valley. “They would overlap existing farms. If my closest sugar beet neighbor had six miles, it would take out all my fields,” he says.
The WVSSA refused to approve the six-mile isolation, and instead lowered it to three miles, and thus increased the risk of GMO contamination to conventional and organic seed.
Morton is angry. “GMO contamination is inevitable under the current situation.”
A sugar beet company representative even admitted this in a meeting Morton attended.
“Organic seed growers in the Willamette Valley must now test their chard and table beet seed for transgenic contamination, paying an expense on account of a technology that will destroy the value of our crop if we get positive results,” he says. “Nobody considered that Roundup Ready sugar beet in one generation might turn up as Roundup Ready salad greens in the next.”
“Last step”: Lawsuit
Seeing no other recourse, Morton joined a lawsuit organized by the Center for Food Safety to sue the US Department of Agriculture for failing to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS). “USDA didn’t consider the impact on all these farms and markets to where we sell seeds. My markets have zero tolerance to GMOs,” he says. “If there is any GMO contamination, my customers won’t buy the seed. Who is going to pay for that?”
Morton and the other plaintiffs hope that a judge’s ruling last year requiring USDA to conduct an EIS for Roundup Ready alfalfa will set a precedent for their case.
The suit was necessary to save precious seed resources. “This was a last step to protect an industry and our businesses from introgression of genetic pollution into the Willamette Valley,” Morton says.