Seeds of dissent

Seeds of dissent

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Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed, along with 82 other farmers and groups, is a  plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Monsanto and its genetically modified seeds.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Seed growers on both sides of the aisle agree that purity drives their markets. And in the Willamette Valley, farmers have long purified crops through a pinning system overseen by the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association. Through it, farmers map where crops will be planted, and work to create space between them to keep them from outcrossing.

“It’s like chess, but backwards, because you keep adding pieces to the board,” says Dan Hillburn, plant division administrator at the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Today, every type of brassica (a genus of plants in the mustard family) is grown for organic seed in the valley, along with spinaches, radishes, chard and beets. Squash, pumpkins and cucumbers are also grown. So are flowers, onions and cool-season vegetables, to name a sampling.

“The seed industry in this valley is a very important place in the world. There are not that many places left that are this big where seeds grow well, so this is sort of like the last best place to grow seeds,” said Hillburn.

As GMO varieties are introduced, there is less space for organic and more risk. Though sugarbeets were the first GMO crop to arrive, there is pressure to introduce canola, which crosses with brassicas. GMO wheat and brassicas also exist, and possible entry into the valley is a concern. Hillburn imagines such problems will grow for organic farmers as GMO crops are deregulated, sold on the open market, and planted outside the “pinning system” (pinned maps) as sugarbeets can be.

Though GMO corn, a common — and deregulated — crop, is not a problem yet, he said. “I think it is only a matter of time.”

Sarah Kleeger owns Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home, which breeds vegetable and flower seeds for the Pacific Northwest. It illustrates how issues with GMO crops perpetuate. Her farm used to grow Roundup Ready sugarbeet seeds and is a mile downwind from another grower. The farm weeds aggressively to keep beet seed from harming business. But Kleeger says she isn’t sure how long they will persist in the ground and is concerned about evidence GMO traits may transfer in soil by virus.

“In an ideal world, we would be able to grow beta crops here, but we can’t,” she says. While the farm isn’t certified organic, and wouldn’t lose certification if contaminated, “Our customers are the ones that care, not the government,” Kleeger says.