Oregon Organic Farmer Warns of Genetic Contamination

November 3, 2008

An organic farmer from Philomath, Ore., says he plans a legal challenge to genetically modified crops because he fears contamination.

Frank Morton says he is concerned about modified 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 Oregon’s 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.

More than four-fifths of the nation’s corn, cotton and soybean crops already are altered to resist pesticides and insects.

Morton, 53, 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?” said Morton, a certified organic grower.

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.

If any of his crop was contaminated with any detectable amount of transgenic sugar beet pollen, “my product becomes worthless,” he said.

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.

The Department of Agriculture restricts the spread of genetically modified crops when they’re being tested.

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 in Central Oregon.

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