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Oregon's Organic Farmers Fight Against GMO's

Critics of genetically modified crops have warned about "frankenfood" and "superweeds" for years. But today, more than four-fifths of the nation's corn, cotton and soybean crops are altered to resist pesticides and insects.

Oregon's Organic Farmers Fight Against GMO's

Frank Morton, looks out over his bed of organic chard

by Scott Learn, The Oregonian

Friday October 31, 2008

Critics of genetically modified crops have warned about "frankenfood" and "superweeds" for years. But today, more than four-fifths of the nation's corn, cotton and soybean crops are altered to resist pesticides and insects.

Now Frank Morton, a 53-year-old organic seed farmer in Philomath, and other activists are plowing new legal ground in the battle, charging that genetically modified crops will spread and contaminate organic crops.

Morton's beef is with sugar beet seeds that scientists with agricultural giant Monsanto have tweaked to resist Roundup, the company's most popular weed killer.

Oregon doesn't grow many sugar beets, which supply half of the nation's sugar. But it turns out the Willamette Valley is nearly the sole supplier of U.S. sugar beet seeds.

In the past two years, the humble commodity crop has quietly become the valley's first to incorporate genetic engineering wholesale.

Morton worries that sugar beet pollen can cross-fertilize table beet and Swiss chard plants, both of which he grows for seed. Each sugar beet flower contains thousands of pollen granules, and researchers have found the windblown pollen miles in the air and miles away from its home field.

"Who's responsible if it isn't on a leash?" says Morton, sunburned, earnest and blunt. "I'm a certified organic seed grower, and if (his crops) were to get contaminated with any detectable amount of transgenic sugar beet pollen, my product becomes worthless."

Earlier this year, activists including Morton filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop Roundup Ready sugar beets. A similar suit that included an eastern Oregon alfalfa grower among its plaintiffs has stopped Roundup Ready alfalfa in its tracks.

Morton began organic farming in the Willamette Valley 20 years ago, growing lettuce varieties for restaurants. He considers it a moral obligation to keep his seeds free of contamination from transgenic crops.

That's why he was stunned to learn in December 2006 that sugar beet seeds with a protein inserted to resist Roundup were coming to the Willamette Valley.

The Department of Agriculture restricts the spread of genetically modified crops when they're being tested. Oregon has witnessed that: The department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service fined The Scotts Co. $500,000 last November after Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass spread during field trials in Jefferson County.

Willamette Valley sugar beet seed growers contacted by The Oregonian declined to talk on the record. Bart Edwards, president of Specialty Seed Growers of Western Oregon, said the group has members on both sides of the issue: Regulators are "going to need the wisdom of Solomon to solve this problem."

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