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Outside seed money finances GMO battle

A David-and-Goliath battle is shaping up over genetically modified crops in Jackson County.

Some Midwest sugar beet growers have joined the Oregon Farm Bureau in giving $75,000 to defeat a homegrown ballot measure from organic farmers to prohibit genetically modified crops except for research. The measure goes before voters on the May primary ballot.

The organic farmers are afraid that growing sugar beet seed genetically engineered to withstand weed killer will taint their crops through cross-pollination.

"Indeed, they do want to squash us like a bug," said Chris Hardy, a Talent organic farmer and chief petitioner for Measure 15-119. "This is about whether we are going to turn the keys to agriculture in the Rogue Valley over to a multinational corporation (Symantec AG) or we are going to say no and stand up to protect our family farms' future."

The sugar beet industry wants to protect a major source of the seed it relies on.

"We oppose any prohibition on the production of biotech crops in any county," said Luther Markwart of the Sugar Beet Growers Association from Washington, D.C. "The reason it is important to us is there is what we refer to as basic seed that is grown in the county."

That seed is shipped to the Willamette Valley, where it is used to produce a major portion of the commercial sugar beet seed used around the country, said Markwart. Nearly all the sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified to withstand weed killer.

Genetically modified sweet corn, feed corn, and alfalfa are also grown in Jackson County.

State records show that four sugar beet companies from Michigan and Minnesota have given a total of $50,000 to defeat the local measure, which goes before voters next month. Michigan Sugar Co. gave $10,000. Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative gave $20,000. American Crystal Sugar Co. gave $10,000. Sidney Sugars gave $10,000. The Oregon Farm Bureau has contributed $25,000. G2 Public Strategies, a political strategy company with offices in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, gave $9,250.

The organic farmers have not reported how much they have raised, but Hardy said it is nowhere near that much.

The Swiss multinational corporation Symantec AG leases a couple dozen plots of less than an acre scattered around the county where it grows GMO seed, spokesman Paul Minehart said.

One of them was the target of what the FBI called "economic sabotage" last summer, when someone uprooted a field of Symantec beets. FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele said there have been no arrests.

In the Willamette Valley, farmers have developed a system to avoid cross-pollination between GMO seedcrops and organic seed crops by keeping the different plots far enough apart.

But negotiations to do the same thing in the Rogue Valley broke down, said Hardy.

Hardy said he and other organic farmers have already had to plow under seed crops rather than go to the expense of genetic testing, which is being demanded by organic seed buyers.

Without a system to assure seeds won't be contaminated, organic farmers cannot in good conscience use their own seed for successive crops, said Elise Higley, an Applegate Valley organic farmer and director of Our Family Farms Coalition, which is campaigning for the initiative.

With the backing of the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregonians for Food and Shelter, the Legislature enacted a law last year prohibiting counties from regulating GMO crops, but Jackson County was left out because the initiative had already qualified for the ballot. Meanwhile, the governor is to appoint a commission to look at the issue.

"It's very important, because this is the only county in the state where local farmers could be disadvantaged by not having access to certain types of crops," said Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter.

Counties don't have the resources to regulate something like GMO crops, and farm fields often cross county lines, he added.

Dahlman said they are helping farmers and others opposed to the ban to organize a group called Good Neighbor Farmers.