Friday, July 19, 2013

Beet Beat: GMO Beets Destroyed Near Ashland

Call it vandalism, a political statement or, as the FBI so quaintly puts it, "economic sabotage," but the fact remains that two fields of genetically modified sugar beets near Ashland were pulled up and left to die.

A story in the Oregonian by Kimberly Wilson described how discussions between the biotech giant Sygenta and local organic seed and vegetable producers had broken down over details of how a "pinning system," which would have established safe distances between crops that could potentially cross-pollinate, would work. It turns out that local organic growers had been unaware that the biotech company had been planting genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready sugar beets in Southern Oregon's Applegate Valley for more than a decade.

The problem is that the genetically modified beets were being grown for their seed (see the Beet Beat series about a similar controversy in the Willamette Valley five years ago). This means that the plants would produce pollen, which one EU study showed can be carried on the wind as far as five miles from the source, and can also be carried by birds, insects, cars and trucks for much greater distances. Since sugar beets are a member of the brassica family, their pollen has the potential to cross-pollinate with any member of that family, including table beets, chard, kale and any number of leafy greens.

This presents a huge difficulty for organic seed and vegetable producers, who are prohibited by stringent organic standards from selling any products that have been contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). One organic seed grower that Wilson spoke with for the article, Chris Hardy, said that "in May, he was forced to destroy a crop of organic chard on a quarter-acre field near Syngenta's after a seed buyer balked at the proximity. [Certified organic farmer Steve] Fry said this summer he'd tilled under 5,000 [table] beets he'd planted about a mile from a Syngenta field, out of concern" over contamination.

Despite these difficult issues, representatives from the pro-GMO and anti-GMO factions had been meeting to hammer out an agreement over pinning their fields, but when it came to divulging exactly where the 30 to 40 fields of GM sugar beets were located, Wilson wrote that "the Sygenta representatives announced the company no longer saw a point in attending meetings and then walked out."

Four days later the first field of beets was destroyed and three days after that the second field of beets was uprooted. Federal investigators are asking for the public's help in tracking down the culprits.

Read the original Beet Beat series about a similar controversy five years ago over sugar beets being grown for seed in the Willamette Valley.

Photo at top of sugar beet damage near Ashland from the Medford Mail Tribune (via OPB News).

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