Tensions between Jackson County growers, GMO company peaked days before beet destruction

Published online: Jul 22, 2013
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ASHLAND, Ore.-One million dollars of beets dried where they fell, on the sandy soil of two small fields barely two miles apart on the outskirts of Ashland.

No one has taken responsibility for what the FBI has called acts of "economic sabotage": the destruction of genetically engineered crops on the nights of June 8 and June 11. A Jackson County sheriff's deputy snapped photographs of footprints left behind. Authorities said they believe "local activists" are to blame.

Turns out, it's neither difficult nor time-consuming to uproot 6,500 waist-high, 2-year-old sugarbeets just about to set flowers. A local farmer mimed the action for a reporter, a moving crouch between rows of plants and a slow-motion pump of arms and grasping of fingers. Snatch-drop. Snatch-drop. Snatch-drop.

You don't have to know beets to know how to pull them up. But these beets were well-known. Infamous, really. Skirmishes over their presence began long before those two nights last month. And the battle isn't nearly over.

Controversial crop
Why the beets are controversial here has as much to do with how they were formed as with the geography of Oregon's lush Rogue River Valley.

A temperate climate and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival draw tens of thousands of visitors to Jackson County each year, but seeds, not sun or soliloquies, may be among the region's breakout stars.

"The Rogue River and Applegate valleys are truly ideal for some seed crops," said John Navazio, senior scientist at Organic Seed Alliance, based in Port Townsend, Wash.

The narrow valleys, extending roughly eight miles from ridgetop to ridgetop and surrounded by the Cascades, Siskiyous and Coast Range, boast mild, dry summers and a long growing season.

Organic farmers have become increasingly influential players in the region. Their herbicide- and pesticide-free seeds find buyers as far away as Vermont.

Until last year, growers were unaware that Syngenta, a Swiss biotech company that sells Roundup-ready seeds, had been growing genetically modified beets in their midst for about a decade.

The discovery came by accident. Organic seed grower Chris Hardy was about to lease a plot of land in February 2012 when the owner happened to mention that an adjoining plot was leased to Syngenta for genetically engineered sugarbeets for seed.

Small growers like Hardy, who raises seeds on tiny lots in downtown Ashland and neighboring towns, panicked. Farmers feared buyers would drop them if genetically modified beet pollen, borne on the wind, entered their table beet and chard fields.

"Within 72 hours, we'd called a meeting to bring farmers and citizens in the Rogue Valley together," Hardy said.

Opponents of
genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, soon gathered 6,700 signatures for a 2014 ballot measure that would ban GMO plants in Jackson County altogether.

County Commissioner Don Skundrick, concerned a ban would put the county on the hook for costly GMO monitoring and enforcement, sought a way for Syngenta and other growers to co-exist.

Neighbors negotiate
Skundrick organized a meeting last summer, inviting two pro-GMO growers, two anti-GMO growers and
Carol Mallory-Smith, an Oregon State University weed scientist who specializes in gene-flow and hybridization.

"If GMO is in the pollen, you'll end up producing a GMO seed," Mallory-Smith said.

Mallory-Smith also told the group genetically modified organisms have no proven human health effects. But she detailed a potential solution to organic growers' concerns.

In the Willamette Valley and elsewhere, growers have formed seed associations to map where crops will be planted and create buffers between them. Colorful pins on county maps show crops each farmer is growing so others can plant farther than pollen will travel.

Syngenta and organic growers began meeting in February to hash out what such a "pinning" system would look like in southern Oregon. They focused on rules and bylaws, which growers would get pins, and how their votes would be counted.

But the monthly planning meetings grew increasingly tense, said attendees on both sides. Pinning depends on growers revealing what they're growing and where. When growers demanded to know where Syngenta was planting GMO sugar beet crops, the company would only say there were 30 to 40 locations in Jackson County.

"From an organizational structural standpoint, nobody is going to divulge too much information before the organization is set," said company spokesman Paul Minehart.

The final meeting of the nascent Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association was June 4. Two Syngenta representatives announced the company no longer saw a point in attending meetings and then walked out, Minehart said.

"We were hopeful that an open dialogue would help to set a good foundation for the formation of an association," the company said in a news release afterward. "It is our firm belief that for a seed association to be successful the members must have a shared goal of coexistence. Unfortunately, with SOSGA we do not believe that goal is shared by all prospective members."
The auditorium erupted when the company's agents left.

"Them leaving was really shocking because they represented themselves as wanting to be part of the community, to be good neighbors," said organic grower Steve Fry.

The meeting fell on a Tuesday. By the weekend, the field Syngenta leased on Tolman Creek Road was ruined. Three nights later, a field on Normal Avenue was plucked clean.

Serious stakes
Federal authorities on the case have named no suspects. Syngenta's rep in the valley estimated a $1 million loss based on what the plants' seeds and offspring would bring at harvest.

It wouldn't be the first time tactics against GMO growers turned nasty. In 2001, five people destroyed fields of genetically engineered oilseed rape in the United Kingdom. In 2010, dozens of protesters uprooted GMO grapevines in France. Other anti-GMO activists destroyed genetically engineered corn crops in Spain.

Organic seed farmers say genetically engineered plantings make them vulnerable.

Hardy says 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. Fry says this summer he tilled under 5,000 beets he'd planted about a mile from a Syngenta field, out of concern.

Syngenta says it, too, is harmed by the possibility of cross-pollination. Minehart said a crop of Syngenta sugar beet seeds was tainted by pollen from non-GMO fields of a related plant species, chard.

"It affects the quality," said Minehart. "It's kind of a way two-way street."

Perhaps, said Fry, but the degree of harm is not the same.

"GMO doesn't care if it gets a little bit of golden chard in their beet," said Fry, "but for organic chard growers, for example, we have zero tolerance for GMOs."

Source: oregonlive.com