GMO wheat a cause for concern in S. Oregon

The potential financial fallout from the discovery of genetically modified wheat in Eastern Oregon has emboldened critics who want an outright statewide ban on Roundup-resistant crops.

"This is one of those I-told-you-so things," said Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat.

Bates and others see a major threat to the farming industry if Asian and European markets stop buying crops grown in Oregon over fears of contamination by GMOs, genetically modified organisms.

Japan already has suspended wheat shipments following the discovery of GMO grain on an Eastern Oregon farm.

Bates, who said he would urge an outright ban on GMOs, said the state Department of Agriculture oversaw an experimental wheat crop that ended in 2005 and provided assurances that the seed wouldn't contaminate nearby fields.

"The state was watching the experiment and couldn't control it," he said. "We have endangered one of our exports. We have endangered it with GMO. It's just crazy."

Bates said he hopes the wheat scare prompts legislators to reject Senate Bill 633, which would limit control over GMO rules to the state rather than local jurisdictions.

In Jackson County, GMO foes have backed ballot Measure 15-119 to ban genetically modified crops locally.

On the national level, Sen. Jeff Merkley last week called for a repeal of the "Monsanto Protection Act," a rider that was part of a spending bill in March that provided greater legal protection for GMO crops.

Merkley said that up to 90 percent of Oregon's wheat crop is grown for export and is now endangered by the Monsanto strain, which is resistant to the popular herbicide Roundup.

Eli Dumitru, treasurer for the GMO Free Jackson County political action committee, said the discovery of GMO wheat offers a more compelling argument for a local ban.

He said opponents of GMOs will continue to oppose Senate Bill 633 while encouraging efforts to make the state GMO-free.

"The whole state, the whole country — we need protection from this," he said. "We're hoping to become a model for the rest of the country."

Dumitru said Jackson County has a thriving organic farming economy that is threatened by GMO crops from nearby fields.

Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and chief budget writer for the Legislature, said many of his colleagues in the House don't understand the GMO issue, noting that legislators have been heavily lobbied by Monsanto and other GMO producers.

The mood in Salem has been changing with the discovery of the GMO wheat and the threat of losing the Asian market, he said.

SB 633 was passed in the Senate, but Buckley said he thinks the bill may die in the House.

"The House leadership doesn't have any plans to bring forward the bill, and I hope to keep it that way," he said.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, a Medford Republican, said he hasn't seen much evidence to indicate that GMO crops are dangerous. As a result, he said, he would still support passage of SB 633.

Esquivel said he has only heard emotional responses from farmers worried about GMOs, rather than facts to support their call for a ban.

"If it's really that dangerous, we shouldn't have it statewide," he said.

Dalton Straus of Straus Ranches LLC has about 160 acres of non-GMO wheat in Southern Oregon.

He said he's been tempted to grow Roundup-ready alfalfa on some of his acreage, but the high cost of seeds has held him back.

"The people I've seen grow GMO crops have some of the most beautiful alfalfa I've seen," he said.

Straus said he doesn't have any love for the corporations that create these crops, but he said the corporations have been responsible for many of the advances in crops and products that help feed a growing worldwide population.

"If it wasn't for those big corporations with the money, where would we be?" he said.

Straus said he doesn't object to organic farmers, but he does object to others telling him what he can or can't plant in his fields.

"My personal feeling with the anti-GMO group is that they want to control the crops in the valley," he said. "I feel a little uncomfortable about that."

Chris Hardy, with GMO-Free Jackson County, said he ripped out his chard last year for fear that nearby Syngenta GMO beets could contaminate his crop.

This year, he said, he attempted to sell seeds to a seed buyer but was thwarted due to fears the seeds could be contaminated. "We have destroyed our seeds," he said.

Hardy said he has one Syngenta field a quarter-mile away and another almost four miles away.

"It is a direct threat not only to vegetables we sell but the seeds we sell," he said.

Hardy said he anticipates the Eastern Oregon GMO scare will spur efforts to make the state GMO-free.

"It's a major, major wake-up call," he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

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