Sugarbeet protest highlights GMO issue

Published online: Apr 01, 2014
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Lyn Colley-Talk and Ted Jones sell honey at Singing Bird Farm a few hundred yards from the Applegate River west of Grants Pass, Ore., and grow a vegetable garden each year.

And they’re worried about the genetically modified crop nearby.

“People really don’t know what’s going on,” Jones said. “It’s simple. We want them to leave.”

They say their bees haven’t done well the last two years since a GMO sugarbeet crop was planted on the land a half-mile away, and they’re also not happy about the farm equipment and workers that drive past.

Worried about potential tainting of their crops from increased use of pesticides and herbicides, Colley-Talk and other organic farmers in the area have taken to protesting along the road, holding signs that say “Syngenta Go Home.” The signs are directed at the Swiss company behind most of the GMO sugarbeets in the U.S., including those near them.

Ten days ago, a farm worker contracted to Syngenta called the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office, complaining that a protester had walked into the middle of the road and held her hand up.

He told dispatchers he was concerned for the safety of the protesters and that their efforts might become violent. While things didn’t escalate beyond some exchanged words, it’s part of a growing debate over so-called GMOs, short for genetically modified organisms.

The issue has become something of a hot button in Southern Oregon, where both Jackson and Josephine counties have measures on the May ballot seeking a ban on GMO crops.

The Jackson County measure was filed before the deadline in a state law that forbids individual counties and cities from banning GMO crops and products. Therefore, if it passes it could effectively shut down operations in that county that plant GMO crops.

Signatures for the Josephine County measure, however, were filed after the deadline, so if it passes it likely will be quashed by the state law. If they pass, both measures are expected to wind up in court.

GMOs make up the vast majority of corn, cotton, soybeans, canola and sugarbeets grown in the United States, and smaller percentages of other crops.

Last year someone dug up 6,500 waist-high GMO sugar beets near Ashland, a sabotage costing $1 million.

Recently Colley-Talk and friends on Facebook tried to organize a boycott of Hart Jewelers in Grants Pass, because the Hart family owns the Applegate property where the beets are grown.

As far as the protest, Colley-Talk said she was simply trying to get the farmer to talk to her and her mother-in-law when she motioned for him to pull over on the road.

“It wasn’t my intent to stir things up. We just want to let people know what’s going on in their back yard,” she said. “I’ve noticed a decline in my bee population the last two years, and they (Syngenta) weren’t here before that. Last year I had my worst garden and my worst bee population.”

Syngenta and opponents of the GMO ban proposal say the protesters are misguided. Nearly all sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified to withstand herbicides such as the popular weed-killer Roundup.

“They don’t require any more pesticides than any other conventionally grown crop,” said Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which opposes the proposed bans on GMOs. “Using an herbicide isn’t something limited to GMO crops. The reason it’s been adopted so much is it allows growers to use a single herbicide, and one that has one of the most environmental friendly profiles.”

That would be Roundup, a brand name of glyphosate.

“We’re very disappointed that a small group of growers and food activists in Jackson and Josephine counties want to impart their way of growing and outlaw what other people are doing,” Dahlman said. “Growers should be able to use what technology they want to use.”

Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart said GMO sugarbeets use 75 percent less pesticide compared to non-GMO beets. He said Syngenta has been growing sugar beet seeds since 1973 in Southern Oregon, and for nearly 20 years they’ve been genetically modified. There are two or three dozen sugar beet plots in Jackson and Josephine counties.

“It’s not like we just moved into the area,” Minehart said. “The production hasn’t risen sharply.”

Growers start the beets here, then harvest the “stecklings” and ship them to the Willamette Valley.

“More than 90 percent of sugarbeet seed in the entire country comes out of Oregon,” Dahlman said.

“Our overall impact in Oregon is $17 million a year, supporting local ag-supply businesses, farmers and other businesses,” Minehart added. “We think we’ve been a good neighbor there.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Janell Kittleson, who runs organic Kittleson Family Farm more than a mile away, said she and her husband lost their bees this year.

“It’s in the area my bees fly,” Kittleson said. “GMO plants affect bees in a multitude of ways E’ We’re also worried about cross-pollination with our chard.

“I don’t like the activity going on in our valley.”