SWEET HOME, Ore. — Growing organic seeds for cabbage, squash and other crops in northwest Oregon gives Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still plenty to worry about, from hungry insects to unexpected frosts.
A man-made concern is fast rising on their list: the encroachment of bio-engineered crops, which they say threatens the genetic purity essential to the organic and heirloom fruits and vegetables they produce in the Willamette Valley, the top U.S. seed-growing region.
“We want to be nice to our neighbors and work together, but we can’t take any chances,” said Still, 33, inspecting plants for damage after a frost on their farm near Sweet Home, about 80 miles south of Portland. Contamination from gene-altered plants could render worthless the seeds they grow for their catalog business, Adaptive Seeds.
Twenty years after the first commercial varieties of genetically modified foods went on sale, farmers have embraced biotech crops that now account for 90 percent of all U.S. cotton and corn and 93 percent of soybeans.
Paradoxically, this has boosted demand for organics by consumers seeking to avoid GMOs. Sales of such foods were $29 billion in 2012, up from $6.1 billion in 2000, according to the Organic Trade Association.
While gene-altered and organic foods share space on grocery shelves, the juxtaposition on farms has led to fears of cross- contamination as pollen blows across fields. Those fears have spawned lawsuits, referendums and even acts of vandalism: in June, 6,500 bioengineered sugar-beet plants in a Syngenta field in Jackson County, on Oregon’s southern border, were torn from the ground.
The issue has become so contentious that the federal government has considered stepping in to referee. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking comment on how best to improve the coexistence of biotech and non-biotech farms. Public comments are due March 4.
“The markets don’t want any contamination with a genetic engineered plant,” said Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed-science professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “It makes producers very concerned.”
While unrelated plants may grow safely side-by-side, others, such as organic Swiss Chard and biotech sugar beets, can create contamination issues. “Not all crops are equal, even in gene flow and mixing,” she said.
Gene-mixing has been an issue with farmers for generations, as plant-pollen traveling by air from one field can mingle with plants from others. Combines, trucks and storage bins that haven’t been properly cleaned also are risks, as one farm’s products can be inadvertently transferred to another.
The stakes of mixing are higher when gene-altered and organic products come into contact because of the purity demanded by non-biotech buyers — and with more products under development, including vegetables and fruits, intermingling is becoming a bigger worry, Mallory-Smith said.
Organic growers have more to lose, because some consumers associate biotech genes with everything from uncertain food safety to corporate control of farming, she said.
Scares that have occurred in Oregon have made it a flashpoint in the national debate over gene-altered crops. Wheat exports from the state to Japan were held up from May through July last year after a strain of unapproved genetically engineered wheat was found by a farmer in his field.
Residents of Jackson County, where the sugar beets were destroyed, will vote in May on whether to ban the planting of all genetically modified crops in the county. State lawmakers last year passed a bill in response to that referendum and others to prohibit such initiatives elsewhere, though anti- biotech activists are trying to overturn that legislation.
A likely statewide ballot initiative this fall will ask Oregon voters to require labels on gene-altered food products sold in the state. Similar initiatives have failed in neighboring Washington and California after costly campaigns.
Coexistence and cooperation among farmers in planting crops is nothing new, said Robert Fraley, the chief technology officer for St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., the world’s biggest seed-seller. “I understand the concern and the theory of the concern,” he added, yet “there simply haven’t been issues that have developed.”
The lack of gene-mixing after decades of side-by-side growing shows that keeping biotech and non-engineered crops in harmony “is a great success story,” he said.
In the Willamette Valley, that has meant keeping a thriving organics industry separate from also-booming growth in genetically modified beets, as well as corn and other crops on the horizon. While agribusinesses reassure consumers that bioengineered crops pose no threat to surrounding producers, organic advocates say farming practices that eschew biotech need to be kept a safe distance from altered genes.
“The Willamette Valley is the test case. You have to be able to make coexistence work there because the market is so sensitive. It’s mission-critical,” said Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the Organic Trade Association, a Brattleboro, Vermont-based trade group that includes WhiteWave Foods Co. among its members.
The fertile Willamette region, bordered to the east by the Cascades Mountains, is known for its seeds, hazelnuts, hops and wine. Growers there have long needed to coordinate crops among themselves to ensure one crop isn’t contaminated by another, said Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group.
Valley farmers and seed companies have long followed a voluntary “pinning” system in which crops at risk of cross- pollination are isolated from one another, preserving their integrity, said Bushue, a farmer outside the Willamette.
“Farmers embrace all types of agriculture,” he said. Having lawmakers “take first crack at what you can grow is frightening,” said Bushue, who served with Batcha on a USDA task force on co-existence.
The uncertain legal environment also has made it harder for some farmers, said John Reerslev, who raises 1,100 acres of fescue and rye grass seed along with peppermint and biotech sugar-beet seed outside Junction City, Oregon. The 2009 court order cost him $500,000 when his buyer slashed the acreage of gene-altered beets it wanted, he said.
“When you have all these lawsuits and initiatives and ballots, yes, it’s pretty unsettling,” he said. Despite what opponents may wish, biotech is here to stay, he said. “I grow modified beets because that’s why my buyers want.”
For Kleeger and Still, it’s about preserving value.
“We are certainly not opposed to capitalism, but capitalism is a tool that can be used to benefit or hurt,” Still said. “Our goal is to have high-quality, open-pollinated seed that may not be found anywhere else.
“It may not be a million-dollar value, but if you lose it forever, that’s a different kind of value that’s hard to quantify.”