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At Oregon Sugar Beet Seed Farms, It's Organic Agriculture Vs. Genetic Engineering

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Oregon News & Action pageAll About Organics, and our Genetic Engineering Resource page.


The Cold War phrase "peaceful coexistence" has been revived in a new context: as a potential solution in the clash between organic agriculture and genetic engineering.

This agricultural battle is global in scope, but one place where the tension is most tangible - and where its consequences are most concrete - is the valley along Oregon's Willamette River.

This valley is a wonderful place to grow things; the soil is fertile and the climate is mild. Settlers who arrived here via the Oregon Trail once called it "Eden."

Farmers here can grow almost any crop, and the valley has become a global center of seed production: Seeds for cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard, beets, grass and many other crops are harvested here and shipped all over the world.

Since seeds are genetic packages, it is perhaps unsurprising that a battle erupted when some of these farmers started growing genetically engineered sugar beets a few years ago. The beets have a new gene, created in the laboratory, which allows them to tolerate the weedkiller Roundup.

On one side of the battle is organic farmer Frank Morton, a relative newcomer to the Willamette Valley's farming community. He grew up in West Virginia, but moved to Oregon in the 1970s to go to college. "This valley is not big enough to have genetically engineered crops and normal crops growing together without cross contamination happening," he says.

On the other side is Tim Winn, who has lived and worked on the same farm his whole life, on the banks of the Willamette River just northeast of Corvallis. Winn says government scientists have concluded that there is nothing dangerous in the new gene, and thus no novel risk for Morton or his customers to worry about.

"We can invent a perceived risk in our mind; a lot of us do," Winn says. "And if the science doesn't support it, then it's not a risk. And I guess if [Morton] wants to stay in business with those customers, it would be in his interest to educate them."

The standoff between these two farmers raises a question: Can genetically engineered crops and organic farms can be good neighbors, no matter where they are grown? 


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