By Jane Ayers, Reader Supported News
Will there peace in the Valley? According to local Rogue Valley farmers in Southern Oregon: only if Monsanto and Syngenta farmers stop planting GMO crops that threaten their livelihoods. A county ballot Measure 15-119 is set to vote on Tuesday, May 20th in Southern Oregon that will protect some of the nation’s most pure non-GMO seed supply from ruin. Southern Oregon is considered in the Top 5 of seed producing regions in the world, so much is riding on this county vote. The ballot measure bans “any person from propagating, cultivating, raising or growing genetically engineered [defined] plants in Jackson County” and would require any GMO plants to be harvested, destroyed, or removed within 12 months. Our Family Farms Coalition and GMO Free Jackson County have pushed for the rallying of Non-GMO: YES on Measure 15-119. However, Monsanto and Syngenta recently spent over $800,000 trying to defeat the Rogue Valley’s local farmers’ initiative.
In this ideal farming valley, the local support is extremely noticeable (except for the editorial board of the local newspaper, Mail Tribune, which was recently bought by a new company). A few days ago, even Jackson County itself claimed its support for the farmers’ non-GMO measure. Hundreds of local businesses, restaurants, and farmers are on-board to claim this valley as non-GMO. Even the area’s preachers, rabbis, and native elders have had events focusing on the morality of introducing genetically engineered organisms, thus messing with Creator’s “sacred seed.” Also of concern is the issue of protecting the area’s water from pesticides that are used with genetically engineered crops.
The Rogue Valley is also home of Harry and David’s, and also Amy’s Organics processing factory, which ranks high in worldwide sales of organic soups and frozen dinners. Amy’s Organics and even Whole Foods have expressed to local farmers the desire to purchase more organic vegetables from this valley, to ensure freshness, and to lower their trucking costs by buying more local produce. In addition, hundreds of local restaurants and food businesses have recently joined together in the Food Integrity Project, which is labeling their businesses as non-GMO dining, with different percentages of their menus using foods that are non-GMO.
In exclusive interviews with Jane Ayers Media, I spoke with four of the key players in the non-GMO fight: Dr. Seidler, organic farmer Chris Hardy, and Elise Higley of Our Family Farms Coalition, and Mary Alionis of Whistling Duck Farm.
Dr. Ray Seidler has been educating area consumers about the dangers of GMOs. Seidler is a retired EPA micro-biologist who years ago started the first Federal Research Program on biosafety issues of genetically engineered organisms. Hired from OSU to start the program, Seidler stated, “Back then we only wanted to regulate GMOs because we didn’t know anything about them. Now we see what damage they can cause.”
Dr. Seidler explained, “The problem is that the locations of some of Syngenta crops are secret. The FDA requires all GMO crops to be four miles away from non-GMO crops, but you can’t see them four miles away because their plots are usually secret. Our local farmers don’t know where to locate acreage to grow their crops without fear of contamination. Local farmers here have buyers for their pure seed to sell to consumers worldwide. Those consumers worldwide don’t want genetically-engineered contaminated seeds.”
Describing the Southern Oregon valley as “an incubator for growing cool-weather seeds, i.e. sugar beets,” he explained that local farmers plant thousands of sugar beet seeds, and then those seeds go to other regions in Oregon (i.e. Willamette Valley) to propagate more seeds. Later these end up as many millions of seeds planted in the Midwest to grow the actual sugar beets.
“But sugar beets grown here are all GMO seed, and are essentially contaminated for the world’s non-GMO international markets. If those farmers would just use conventional non-GMO seed for the sugar beets, then all farmers would benefit. The local farmers are trying to protect their vegetable crops of Swiss chard and table beets from being contaminated by these GMO sugar beet crops.”
Seidler emphasized, “Those non-GMO veggies would feed the world better than GMO sugar (from sugar beets). The sugar beets, introduced by Syngenta, are the origin of contamination for the valley’s farmers and the world market. The pure vitamin-laden seeds grown here (Swiss chard and table beets) are internationally exported to the 66+ countries that have banned GMOs in their countries. These seeds grown in this valley are in demand worldwide.”
Seidler further explained that this battle is about sugar vs. vegetables: “The foreign corporation Syngenta has been hiring day-workers here to plant GMO seeds, and those seeds go on to produce a different product than vegetables. Those seeds produce sugar, and the agribusiness conglomerates are feeding sugar to the world – so this battle is mostly coming down to ‘sugar over vegetables.’”
He decried the intensity of Syngenta’s television ads before the vote: “It is incredible the way they have lied and fought against this ballot measure. Just recently Syngenta was frightening local voters in TV ads that they wouldn’t be able to grow veggies in their home gardens, implying that anything a citizen would grow is obviously GMO. But gardening plants for home gardens are just hybrids, not GMOs.”
“There are no GMO veggies for sale in the world! In this Rogue Valley, the GMOs are corn, alfalfa, and sugar beets. They are the contaminants to the vegetables and seed in this region,” he emphasized.
Seidler clarified, “In reality, there are only 5-6 families in the Rogue Valley growing GMO crops. The rest are really hybrid growers, not GMO growers. How can five families claim they will go out of business if they can’t grow their GMOs? They can still grow with conventional seed and get their harvest as always.”
Pointing out that GMO farmers could choose differently and not contaminate the whole valley, Seidler continued, “For example, take these 4-5 GMO farmers and multiply them by 6 plots. That equals 30 plots of genetically-engineered sugar beet plots managed by Syngenta. Those 4-5 families didn’t have to choose to grow GMO crops. They could grow conventional hybrid corps (whether organic or not). The Syngenta business model is GMO, and they plant a checkerboard of tiny plots all over the place. If the Rogue Valley farmers want to grow their non-GMO vegetables, they get contaminated by the GMO seeds. So who is threatening whose livelihoods here?”
Seidler, who has participated in the many rallies against GMO farming, emphasized, “Those corporations don’t live here and they pay no taxes. They use our land and water for a time, take the product and go. But our valley is left contaminated and the local farmers cannot sell their non-GMO seeds and/or their veggies. Those 4-5 families are ruining it for the whole Rogue Valley’s livelihood, and ruining it for the world consumers who request non-GMO seed and/or veggies. The bottom line is that the local non-GMO farmers will not be able to plant their vegetables.”
One of the five area GMO farmers has now decided to publicly jump ship on planting future GMO seed: Jared Watters, a former GMO farmer in the valley, has been highlighted in non-GMO ads saying, “We manage one of the largest farms in the county, and we currently grow genetically engineered crops. But we’ve learned a lot about the threats these crops pose to other farmers and our economy, and we won’t grow them anymore. Join our family in helping protect farmers’ property rights by stopping trespass and harm caused by genetically engineered crops.”
Mary Olious, owner of the renowned Whistling Duck Farms, says: “Usually the debate is organic vs. conventional, and that debate is very divisive. But non-GMO vs. GMO is the battle today. The use of RoundUp on GMO crops is also the issue. It is also about the seed.”
“The GMO corporations now say the seed supply will be contaminated. Their argument is, ‘You can’t prevent cross pollination, so they are just going to have to be contaminated.’ They admitted in court in 2009 that it is impossible to prevent cross-pollination. But GMO contamination cannot be contained outside of a laboratory setting, so it’s like a monster.”
She adds, “The chemical companies, Monsanto and Syngenta, have dozens of seed plots here in our pure valley, and we’re being used as an outdoor laboratory. It violates our rights. We want to grow pure food but we can’t if they plant these GMO plots, especially of GMO sugar beets (for sugar). Our vegetable seeds (for chard and regular beets) get contaminated. This affects my farm because there are two plots within one mile of my farm business. It also affects my ability to save our non-GMO seed and/or to grow chard and regular beets. If they grow GMO corn near my farm business, then also my farm can’t grow sweet corn, popcorn, or dry corn. The pure seed will have been contaminated.”
Olious warned, “We have to stop it now in this ballot measure, as this is our only chance. New State laws won’t let us fight this again. In October, Gov. Kitzhaber made it a law that only the state, not the county/regions, can limit GMO crops or other agricultural restrictions.”
Chris Hardy, the organic farmer who first alerted the region’s farmers of his exposure to GMO threats, said: “The three dozen plots are grown by the Swiss international chemical company Syngenta, who is banned from producing the same in their own country. I have talked to hundreds of farmers in the valley over the past two years. I have only found two GMO farmers in Josephine County, and one GMO farmer in Jackson County, but their web site, Protect Oregon Farmers, states that there are six local GMO farmers in opposition to us. So we assume there are 5-6 GMO farmers in our valley.”
Hardy pointed out, “PacNW states that Southern Oregon is in the top five world-class seed producing areas in the world. We want to create a safe-haven for these seeds. That’s why the protection of the non-GMO seed is so needed in this Rogue Valley. Honestly, those farmers could till under those GMO crops and plant non-GMO, and not even have to rest their soil, etc. This fall they could proceed with farming non-GMO alfalfa, using conventional seeds. There would be additional money incentives for them in the interim because they would not have to worry that more U.S. GMO alfalfa exports would be rejected by global markets.”
Hardy, looking for solutions, suggested, “Also, they could plant non-GMO sugar beets so our vegetable crops are not threatened/contaminated. Sugar has been produced with beets for years, and now there is an interest to return to this heritage of our food supply, using non-GMO sugar beets.”
“In fact, there is a huge market opening up because consumers/countries are banning GMOs, and in the past few years, 96% of all sugar beets have been grown from GMO seeds. So, this valley could also fill that niche for the new demand for non-GMO sugar beets and/or seeds. As a result, the farmers in the Midwest will also benefit by being allowed to plant non-GMO seeds and to participate in new global markets. Non-GMO seeds planted in the Pacific Northwest are needed to grow non-GMO sugar beets in other parts of the country, producing non-GMO sugar, which can be exported and not rejected by new global markets requiring non-GMO.”
In agreement with Dr. Seidler, farmer Hardy declared, “The only business Syngenta has in Southern Oregon is to lease land and grow genetically engineered sugar beet seeds, the foundation for the world’s genetically engineered sugar beets (for sugar).”
Hardy pointed out, “Truthfully, the majority of our local farmers, home gardeners, food businesses, and restaurants, support Yes on this measure. If contamination continues, it will affect 400+ local businesses, farmers and farmers markets, because none would be able to offer non-GMO foods.”
Farmer Elyse Higley with Our Family Farms Coalition also said, “Scientists from OSU say we can’t co-exist in this small valley with GMO corporations. Our opposition is the lobbying group Oregonians for Food and Shelter (OFS), which is based in Salem and has on its board of directors Dow, Monsanto, and Syngenta. There are really less than a handful of growers of GMOs in this valley. We have the real support of local farmers, and so we want to stop the lies and misinformation. Truth be told, there are 150+ farms that need protection from this threat of Syngenta-funded GMO plots or we might not be able to grow non-GMO seeds in the future.”
Opponents of the Yes to Measure 15-119 also held a press conference last week. Tracy Whisky of the Oregon Farm Bureau said that the ballot measure was “poorly written,” and that private property rights were going to be violated, and would cause “neighbors talking to neighbors,” turning in GMO farmers if the measure passes.
Casey Moore, of the Cattleman’s Association, stated, “We urge voters to reject this poorly written crop ban which violates property rights and polices innocent farmers. In Jackson County, code enforcers will have the ability to enter private property, and neighbors can report on farmers growing GMO crops. This will bring vigilantism.”
GMO farmer Charlie Boyer noted, “These farmers need to fight the patent laws, because it has been shown that some non-GMO farmers are wanting to steal patented seed. If they can grow ten acres of a patented seed they didn’t have to buy…. There have been examples of 400 acres of patented products stolen from the company. There have been 147 cases in North America where Monsanto has had to sue organic farmers for using their patented seeds.”