Oregon is a world leader in seed production, a high-value agricultural specialty that generates $50 million to $60 million a year. The state would be foolish to jeopardize this industry for the benefit of a single new low-value crop whose primary market depends on government subsidies. At a minimum, a full scientific review of the new crop's potential effects on Oregon's agricultural diversity is needed.
The new crop is canola — new to Oregon, that is. Canola, also known as rapeseed, has long been grown in the upper Great Plains region. Its seed contains an edible oil that in recent years has become a biofuel feed stock. The emerging, and still subsidized, market for biofuels makes canola potentially attractive to Willamette Valley grass and grain farmers seeking to break pest and disease cycles by planting it as a rotational crop.
One problem with canola is that it's a prolific pollinator, and also a member of the genus brassica — the same genus that contains cabbage, mustard, broccoli and a dozen other crops cultivated by Willamette Valley seed farmers. In the seed business, purity is everything — and a seed crop contaminated by canola pollen would be degraded in value.
A second problem is that most canola — 85 percent of the crop in Canada, for example — is genetically modified for resistance to herbicides. Seed crops contaminated by pollen from genetically modified canola could not be sold as organic, and many export markets would be closed altogether. Oregon's large and diverse organic seed industry regards canola as a fatal threat.
A third problem is that canola is a robust plant. Its value as an oil crop hints at its ability to produce an abundance of seed, some of which remains after harvest. The seed can be transported by birds or farm equipment, resulting in the plant's spread.
For all these reasons, the state Department of Agriculture banned canola from the Willamette Valley until this year, when it issued a rule allowing the crop to be cultivated outside an exclusion zone. Seed farmers say the new rule leaves their crops vulnerable to contamination, and invites the spread of what would amount to an invasive species.
House Bill 2742 would extend the former ban for three years. During that period Oregon State University would conduct an intensive study of the risks of canola cross-pollination and spread.
HB 2742 is a basic precaution. If canola's critics are right, allowing the crop in Oregon would be a costly and irreversible mistake. If the crop can be grown in Oregon safely, a thorough assessment of the risks and rewards would create confidence that does not exist today.