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A Tale Of Two Seed Farmers: Organic Vs. Engineered
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A Tale Of Two Seed Farmers: Organic Vs. Engineered

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A Tale Of Two Seed Farmers: Organic Vs. Engineered
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with peaceful coexistence. It's a Cold War phrase being used in a new arena. This time it's agriculture, where there's increasing conflict between those who grow crops organically and those who plant genetically-modified crops. We're going to focus now on one fight between two farmers who say their valley may not be big enough for both of them.

Reporter Dan Charles has their story.

DAN CHARLES: You can grow almost anything in the valley along the Willamette River in western Oregon. The soil is rich, and the weather is mild. Settlers who came here on the Oregon Trail once called this place Eden.

With the luxury of choice, many farmers here grow seed: seed for cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard, beets and grass. Their harvest goes all over the world - to the U.S., Europe and Asia.

One of those farmers is Tim Winn. He's lived on the same farm his whole life.

Mr. TIM WINN (Farmer): I try to be considerate of my neighbors, and I think that would extend right clear up into my farming.

CHARLES: Another is Frank Morton who moved to Oregon to go to college.

Mr. FRANK MORTON (Farmer): I probably intended to be an artist, but I had a plan which was that first I should be a farmer. And then at least I wouldn't be a starving artist.

CHARLES: Since the seeds they grow are genetic packages, maybe it's not surprising a battle erupted when some of these farmers, including Tim Winn, started growing genetically-engineered sugar beets.

Organic farmer Frank Morton is on one side of the battle.

Mr. MORTON: I'm on record as saying that the valley is not big enough to have genetically-engineered crops and normal crops growing together without, inevitably, cross-contamination happening.

CHARLES: But Tim Winn says there's nothing new or risky that Frank Morton or his customers should worry about.

Mr. WINN: We can invent a perceived risk in our mind, a lot of us do. And if the science doesn't support it, then it's not a risk. If his customers are concerned about it, then, I guess, if he wants to stay in business with those customers, it would be in his interest to educate them.

CHARLES: This standoff is more than just a local dispute. It's raising the question of whether genetically-engineered crops and organic farms can be good neighbors in the Willamette Valley or anywhere.

(Soundbite of vehicle starting)

CHARLES: The best place to start to understand this controversy is probably the farm where Morton grows his organic seeds: Gathering Together Farm.

Mr. MORTON: Cabbage, arugula, Swiss chard, turnips.

CHARLES: We pass one field after another.

Mr. MORTON: This is about a quarter acre of chard seed here - or it will be for chard seed. Would you like to get out?

CHARLES: Sure.

Morton brought me here to explain how producing seed is different from growing regular crops. You have to watch out for stray pollen. This golden chard, he explained, is actually the same species as beets. They're all Beta vulgaris, the way black Labradors and golden retrievers are all dogs. Those different plants will cross-pollinate. So if you want to produce high-quality chard seed, you do not want beet pollen blowing into your field. And pollen can blow for miles.

As it happens, Morton says, there's a sugar beet seed grower straight across the fields a couple of miles away.

Mr. MORTON: Apparently, they're not finding my red chard or gold chard seed in their sugar beets, and I haven't found any of their genetics in mine that I know of. There's always some question, and that's the problem is there's always some question.

CHARLES: Now, the local seed growers association has a system for avoiding cross-pollination. The approach is charmingly low tech, just a map of the valley with a lot of pins stuck in it to show where each seed crop is planted. For farmers, it's first come, first served. If you pin a sugar beet field, nobody else is supposed to grow seed for Swiss chard within three miles.

Mr. GEORGE BURT: Here's a sugar beet field that's pinned. There's another one that's pinned.

CHARLES: George Burt helped set up this pinning system when he was manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Company. He's now retired.

Mr. BURT: You're really trying to minimize the risk, and you can get it down to the point where you're relatively sure that you're not hurting anybody else and no one is hurting you.

CHARLES: But you cannot promise that absolutely no cross-fertilization will happen - ever, he says.

For organic grower Frank Morton, that system was fine until farmers in the valley started growing sugar beets that were genetically engineered to tolerate the weed killer Roundup. He wants absolute protection against those manmade genes.

If they got into his chard or red beets, he says, it would violate his organic principles and it would destroy his business because his customers wouldn't buy his seeds anymore. In fact, he says, just the possibility of contamination is starting to hurt.

Mr. MORTON: We think that buyers from overseas - organic seed companies - we think they have already begun to avoid buying from us.

CHARLES: So Morton, together with some environmental groups, went to court, and he won.

A federal judge banned the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets until the USDA does an environmental impact study that examines the economic consequences of cross-pollination, especially for organic farmers. In a similar case, another judge demanded the same thing for genetically-engineered alfalfa.

Listening to these farmers, there does not seem to be an easy solution.

Organic grower Frank Morton says his business cannot survive if there are genetically-engineered crops, often called GMOs, anywhere nearby.

Mr. MORTON: It will be a valley fit for growing GMOs, but it won't be a valley where people from Europe and Japan and Korea come to have seed grown.

CHARLES: And Tim Winn says Frank Morton's demands and his lawsuit could cripple a crucial industry.

Mr. WINN: Because, quite honestly, if you regulate this valley to the point where you don't have, you know, sugar beet seed production or the production of some other major commodities, that's a huge deal.

CHARLES: There's one voice calling for compromise. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack released an open letter last month proposing what he called a new paradigm of coexistence and cooperation. Giving in a little, Vilsack said, would be better than litigation that puts one side or the other one out of business.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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