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Biotech beets heat up discussion at USDA Hearing in Corvallis

Sugar beet seed is a rare bright spot for struggling grass-seed farmers. Farmer John Reerslev of Junction City says the GMO product provides a safe way to control weeds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture held a hearing to consider the possible deregulation of biotech sugar beets, developed by agribusiness giant Monsanto.

"Hybrid sugar beet seed has always been the highest per acre net return on our farm. I had 120 acres two years ago on 6 percent of our land, but it was valued at 25 percent of our income. It’s a very important rotational crop," Reerslev said.

Oregon and Washington farms grow nearly all the nation’s sugar beet seed – for Midwest farmers who then supply sugar refineries.

Organic rebellion

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service let them start growing GMO sugar beets in 2005.

But then organic farmers, including Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, complained. He fears it will cross-pollinate with his crops.

Morton, in a lawsuit with environmental groups, successfully accused the USDA of deregulating the seed without first taking public comment on its safety.

After Thursday’s hearing, Morton explained:

"Roundup ready sugar beet had already been planted in the valley. So we had no way to protect ourselves at that time. Swiss chard and table beet seed grown here is in danger of being contaminated," he said.

Universal seed company of independence testified that the new biotech version has already crossed with its hybrid chard and beet seed.

Judge orders hearings

In the ongoing lawsuit with Morton, a judge ordered the USDA to hold hearings before making a final decision on deregulation by summer.

Oregon State University weed science professor Carol Mallory-Smith finds herself at the center of the debate. Her research shows modified genes in wheat and other grasses do migrate when crossed with close relatives

"I also believe that transgenic and non-transgenic crops can co-exist in the Willamette Valley, but that gene movement will occur at some point, either through pollen seed or... There must be an agreed upon level of advantageous presence in non-transgencic crops. I also believe if managed correctly, Roundup Ready sugarbeets offer benefits for weed control for sugar beet growers," Mallory-Smith said.

Morton says the threat of contamination has already hurt his business. Since 2009, his sales of organic swiss chard and beet seeds are down.

Clint Lindsey, who farms near Corvallis, once wanted to grow GMO canola but now favors organic grains. Lindsey voiced fears about what’s to come if the USDA gives the green light to biotech sugarbeets.

"It's almost inevitable that you will eventually see the GE traits in the non-GE varieties. Well, that's an unacceptable risk to us. We have a burgeoning organic seed industry that is under direct threat from genetically-modified crops. And I don’t want to mortgage the future of our ability to provide organic food so that Monsanto can line their pockets," Lindsey said.

At Thursday’s hearing, people referred to rumors that the USDA might soon deregulate another biotech crop – GMO wheat. That would come as more conventional grass-seed farmers like Lindsey transition to growing wheat for the organic market.

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