Sugar Beet Industry's Opinion on Roundup Ready Sugar Beets
and Frank Morton’s Response
The pro-biotech web site “Truth About Trade & Technology” published an article written by a farmer named Noel Kjesbo, who is a sugar beet producer in the Red River Valley (North Dakota and Minnesota – he doesn’t say specifically which state he farms). Noel was responding to the lawsuit brought by OSA and others against USDA-APHIS for the improper deregulation of a Roundup Ready sugar beet. Noel accused Organic Seed Alliance and the co-plaintiffs of being ”fraudulent”, “dishonest”, “selfish”, and of using “misleading names”. He believes that we are using “global terrorism and food scares” to cause anxiety around food safety, and specifically the safety of genetically modified foods. While we at OSA do have concerns about the human and environmental health impacts of industrial biotech agriculture, we also have concerns about the impact of biotech crops on organic farmers freedom to operate - their ability to produce organic food with integrity and compete in the marketplace .
The following was a response written by Frank Morton – farmer, plant breeder, and owner of Wild Garden Seeds in Philomath, Oregon:
As a farmer, seedsman, plant breeder, member of the Isolation Pinning Rules Committee of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Specialty Seeds Association, and director on the boards of both Organic Seed Alliance and the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, I want to offer agricultural perspective on the deregulation and planting of genetically engineered Roundup Ready sugar beets.
The Willamette Valley, where I farm and live, produces virtually all of the sugar beet seed for the United States. It also produces some table beet seed and a huge percentage of the Swiss chard seed that ends up in the fresh salad trade from California to Maine and other markets overseas. We also grow seed for much of the world’s Brassica veg crops, cabbage, kale, broccoli, turnips and their kin. We think we matter as much as your sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley, and we think our high value specialty seed trade with the Pacific Rim and the EU is a big deal. But this is all dependent on seed quality, and for us in our sensitive markets, seed quality means genetic purity – both for trueness to varietal type, and freedom from transgenic contamination. Our buyers do not want GMOs in our seed whether you care (or we care) or not. Transgenes from Roundup Ready sugar beets in our Swiss chard (or oilseed canola in our Chinese cabbage) will not be accepted by our overseas customers any more than they will by our organic seed customers in Oregon or California. That’s the truth about trade that is obvious from my window.
What your folks see as a great blessing (may improve yields 10% I hear from the company that stands to gain the most) could hereabouts destroy the value of conventional and organic seed crops downwind of GMO plantings of sugar beets, canola, corn, or whatever the next transgenic specialty crop may be. BT-broccoli, RR-radish, onion, spinach – all of these are potential trade disasters waiting to happen to my happy valley, now 95% stocked with Roundup Ready sugar beets, brought in secretly over three years without any notification to neighbors, fellow seedfolks, or the seed association, until after planting of the third year.
This valley isn’t big enough to provide certainty of genetic isolation between GE-sugar beets and conventional beets and Swiss chard. Such certainty would require more than six miles of isolation distance between transgenic and conventional fields, according to the sugar beet industry’s own research. The Pinning Isolation Rules of the seed association provide for three miles of isolation, and these are the new rules, made in full cognizance (for the first time) that GMOs were among us. To provide the six miles necessary to keep conventional beets and Swiss chard transgene-free, sugar beet isolations would need to expand against their conventional neighbors, and due to production seniority, would push other producers out of the valley entirely. In other words, to protect the conventional beet/chard industry, it would be disappeared. That might seem fair in someone’s version of the truth, but not the guys I know.
None of these issues related to genetic contamination of world class seed production zones like ours were taken into account by USDA/APHIS, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, or my own WVSSA members that visited this surprise upon us about one year ago. Since these would have been the guardians of the public and commercial interests at hand, and since none of this was in fact considered when USDA/APHIS deregulated GE-beets (nor when they began to planted in Oregon), it seems entirely reasonable to me that we specialty seedfolk have been infringed upon in more ways than one, and a Judge ought to have a look at the situation. Maybe our author and “the company that has the most to gain” would prefer to have their day in a Missouri Court to argue before a Judge, but my grief is happening well west of there on the map, and I’m happy with our justice system in this regard.
This is no different than the Roundup Ready alfalfa case. One company assumed it could ride in and transgenically contaminate everyone producing alfalfa – regardless of the market consequences – and get away with it. Alfalfa seed and forage farmers showed them different, and that company is paying a price for assuming it can push its heavy weight around any farming sector. RR-alfalfa is a flawed technology put back in its box where it belongs. RR-beets are the same kind of buffalo bull, likely to cross the fence and make little beefalos where they are not the intended kind of cow.
I would think any farmer that knows the truth when he sees it would be able to understand this; milking beefalos will not do for the dairyman.
When biotech can manage to keep its pretties at home where they have a value to someone, and when biotech is proud enough of its work that it will label it, then maybe they will have a place in free and fair trade. As long as biotechnology has the potential to destroy the neighborhood’s product values by blowing on the wind, I think biotech has offered up a flawed device.
By Frank Morton
Frank Morton is an old salad grower gone to seed. He originated and operates Wild Garden Seed with a lot of help from his wife, Karen, their two boys, and the entire crew at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, OR. He serves on the Board of Directors of Organic Seed Alliance and is the Board President of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
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