Illegal GM sugar beet plantings spur GMO-free initiative in Oregon

Published: November 1, 2012

Category: Non-GMO Initiatives

GMO Free Initiative Jackson County, Oregon

Chris Hardy (center) at launch of petition drive for GMO-free Jackson County

To access all the articles in this month's issue of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, SUBSCRIBE NOW.

Biotech company violated USDA isolation requirements for GM sugar beet crops in Southern Oregon; USDA does nothing

Residents of Jackson County, Oregon have organized an initiative to ban the production of genetically modified plants in the county. Organizers of GMO-Free Jackson County have submitted a county ordinance and are collecting signatures with the aim of putting the initiative on the ballot for an election in 2013 or 2014. The initiative was launched in response to concerns that seeds for genetically modified Roundup Ready sugar beets were being grown in close proximity—and illegally—to producers of organic crops.

Illegal plantings all over the Rogue Valley

Last February, Chris Hardy, owner of Village Farm in Ashland, Oregon, discovered that a neighbor was growing GM sugar beet seeds just one-quarter of a mile from his small organic farm in Ashland, Oregon.

The neighbor was growing the beets under contract with biotechnology company Syngenta for seed production.

The problem was that his neighbor’s GM sugar beet plants could cross pollinate with—and contaminate—Hardy’s chard and table beet plants, ruining their organic status.

“I told him ‘are you serious?’” Hardy said. “I thought this was outrageous.”

Another even bigger problem was that the GM plantings violated US Department of Agriculture requirements, which call for a 4-mile separation distance between GM beets and other Beta seeds, which includes Swiss chard and table beets. From February 2011 until July 2012, GM sugar beets were partially deregulated by USDA and subject to the 4-mile separation distance.

Hardy contacted Syngenta about the violation and a company representative told him that there were other GM beet seed production fields throughout the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon.

“He said there was a checkerboard of fields ranging in size from one-quarter to 10 acres being grown from South Ashland up to Grants Pass, a distance of about 25 miles,” Hardy said.

Hardy also contacted the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service about Syngenta’s violation of the 4-mile buffer. The agency sent out an inspector who interviewed Hardy and several other farmers, but nothing resulted from it.

“Syngenta was very cavalier, hopscotching all over the valley,” said Brian Comnes, a retired computer project manager in Ashland and one of the organizers of the GMO-free initiative.

Another organic farmer, Steve Fry, owner of Fry Family Farms in Medford, was forced to destroy a chard crop because he found that a neighbor was growing GM sugar beets 400 yards from his farm. Fry was growing the chard for seed but his customer refused to buy the seed because he was concerned it had been contaminated by the GM beets.

“I can’t grow chard seed because the Syngenta guy is down the street,” Fry said. “Once GMOs are in town, everyone has to go away.”

Collecting signatures to put GMO ban on ballot

Following the discovery of the GM beets, Hardy called a meeting of farmers and citizens in Jackson County to alert them, and they organized GMO-Free Jackson County. In May, the group filed a proposed county ordinance that would make it illegal to grow GM plants in the county.

According to Comnes, the group has already collected the required 4662 signatures to get the ordinance on the ballot, but they aim to get more in case some signatures aren’t valid.

“We’d like to get 6500 by December 8 (the deadline to qualify for the next county election),” Comnes said, noting that the Ashland City Council also backs the initiative.

If they achieve that goal, Ordinance No. 635 would appear on the ballot for the next county election, which could be as early as March 2013 or as late as May 2014. If Jackson County voters pass the initiative, the ordinance would become law a year later, meaning it may not take effect until 2015.

Until then, Hardy says it’s a “crapshoot” for Rogue Valley farmers to grow organic chard and table beets because of the GMO contamination threat.

On top of that, in July USDA-APHIS completely deregulated GM sugar beets so the 4-mile isolation distance to protect chard and table beets is no longer a requirement.

If Jackson County voters pass Ordinance No. 635, the county would become the third in the US to pass a GMO ban, following Mendocino and Marin counties in California who passed similar laws in 2004.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, November 2012