At Oregon Sugar Beet Seed Farms, It's Organic Agriculture Vs. Genetic Engineering In Oregon, a battle has erupted between farmers growing genetically engineered sugar beets and organic farmers who worry about cross-pollination. The question is whether the farms can be good neighbors.

A Tale Of Two Seed Farmers: Organic Vs. Engineered

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


Reporter Dan Charles has their story.

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

TIM WINN: 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.

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

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.

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.


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

MORTON: Cabbage, arugula, Swiss chard, turnips.

CHARLES: We pass one field after another.

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

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.

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.

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: 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.

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

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

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.

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: For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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