Biotech beet battle heats up in Corvallis

2011-11-18T09:00:00Z Biotech beet battle heats up in CorvallisBy Bennett Hall, Corvallis Gazette-Times Corvallis Gazette Times
November 18, 2011 9:00 am  • 

Farmers take sides at Corvallis meeting on future of Roundup Ready crop

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service came to Corvallis on Thursday to learn how people felt about the possibility of deregulating Roundup Ready sugarbeets.

They got an earful. 

APHIS deregulated the genetically engineered sugarbeets, created by agribusiness giant Monsanto to resist the company’s widely distributed Roundup herbicide, in 2005. But the Center for Food Safety and other genetic engineering opponents challenged that decision in court. A judge ordered APHIS to revisit the issue and, this time, prepare an environmental impact statement.

While sugarbeets are grown primarily in the upper Midwest and inland Northwest, all of the seed for those crops is produced here in the Willamette Valley, home to a thriving specialty seed industry.

But organic and conventional seed producers, as well as some vegetable growers, are worried that their crops will be contaminated by genetically modified sugarbeets, which can cross-pollinate with non-engineered beets and related species such as Swiss chard. Some food safety advocates worry about the spread of Roundup-resistant “superweeds,” while others object to genetically engineered crops of any kind.

All of those interests were represented Thursday at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center, where 34 of the 100 or so people in attendance stepped to the microphone to offer their opinions.

Large-scale beet growers from as far away as Minnesota and Michigan sang the praises of Roundup Ready sugarbeets, citing higher yields, fewer weed problems and reduced chemical applications.

Paul Stiever, a third-generation Montana farmer, called Roundup an environmentally safe herbicide that, used with Monsanto’s genetically modified beet strain, replaces as many as four different chemicals.

“If we were to lose this technology, it would increase our operating costs and make us less competitive in a global market where many countries are heavily subsidized,” he said.

Willamette Valley sugarbeet seed producers said the crop was stable and profitable. Training programs and protocols for cleaning equipment, eliminating volunteer plants after harvest and monitoring seed production, they argued, are working. And isolation distances for various crops have been established to prevent unwanted cross-pollination. 

“Meeting those requirements is not easy, but the rewards for doing so will often make it worth the effort,” testified Bruce Ruddenklau, an Amity-area farmer. “Under the watchful eye of the reputable beet seed companies in the Willamette Valley, I believe we have demonstrated we can produce this crop in a responsible manner.”

But other farmers fired back, arguing that gene drift is inevitable and that sooner or later genetically modified organisms would turn up in fields where they aren’t wanted.

“My concern is that if we allow GMO sugarbeets it will lead to a slippery slope that will allow other GMO crops in the Willamette Valley,” said organic grower Clint Lindsay of A2R Farms near Tangent. 

“I don’t want to mortgage the future of our farm, our ability to grow our crops, so that Monsanto can line their pockets.”

Several growers testified they have already found Roundup Ready beets growing in fields that were supposed to have been cleared of all volunteers, and one even brought in a sample and waved it around for all to see.

“This is a pest to me,” said Andrew Still, an organic seed producer from Sweet Home.

Ted Hake, the production manager for conventional producer Universal Seed, said his company was taking no official position on deregulation. But he also testified that 25 percent of his Swiss chard and table beet fields were already contaminated.

“This is a very serious matter for our customers, our growers and Universal Seed,” he said.

Philomath organic seed grower Frank Morton, who was a plaintiff in the Center for Food Safety lawsuit, said he’s losing customers because of the perceived threat of contamination. 

And he had a personal message for the APHIS representatives.

“I’m glad you guys are finally here,” he said, “but you should have been here before the crop was deregulated the first time.”

Sound off: Comments on the draft environmental impact statement for Roundup Ready sugarbeets can be submitted online through Dec. 13 at www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/sugarbeet.shtml 

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

 

Copyright 2014 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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