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Down to Earth: Q&A with Organic Farmer Frank Morton

Farmer Frank Morton discusses his battle to keep GMOs from contaminating his organic seed crops and ruining his business.

Length: 25 min 57 sec

Recorded: June 2011

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Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch speaks with Frank Morton, an organic farmer who is a client member in Earthjustice’s Roundup Ready sugar beet case.

Morton, a seed grower in the Willamette Valley, believes that the USDA’s approval of genetically engineered sugar beets poses a threat to his organic seed crop. Roundup Ready sugar beets are wind pollinators, which means that pollen from Roundup Ready beets could contaminate non-GE beets and other compatible species, such as red chard.

Jessica Knoblauch: You’re a client member in Earthjustice’s genetically modified sugar beet case. How did you first get involved in this issue?

Frank Morton: Because I'm a seed grower here in the Willamette Valley, I'm also a member of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association. We were having one of our normal annual meetings in December 2006 when a member of the sugar beet seed growing group told us that they had already gone GMO [genetically modified organism], as he put it, and their fields were already planted to 30 percent GMO sugar beets. And he was only bringing it up to us to let us know, first, that they had decided to go GMO and second of all to tell us that they thought (the sugar beet seed industry thought) that they needed to have larger isolation buffers between their fields and other people's fields. So they were requesting an increase in the buffer allowances for their crops because, as he put it, they “didn't want to get sued.”

So, essentially I was just sitting there and suddenly it was announced that they had gone GMO and none of the other members of the seed association had any idea that this had happened. We were never consulted by the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] or anybody else. We were not informed. Nobody asked the seed association whether this would have any impact on us.

So basically a lot of us felt un-consulted about it, but there was a sort of fatalism about it among the membership because they didn't think there was anything that could be done about it. USDA had deregulated the crop and if USDA said it was deregulated, then it was deregulated. Our group didn't feel that it had any power to try to establish rules or protocols that would be any different for the new GMO sector.

I am the only 100 percent organic seed company in the group, so it sort of fell to me to try to make the organization realize the long term consequences of us having genetically modified crops in the valley. And I played out to our group that it didn't matter whether they were conventional or organic, that their customers would not want to have GM contamination in the seed that comes from the Willamette Valley. The group actually did agree with that perception. However, they continued to insist that because the USDA had allowed this happen, that we were powerless to do anything about it, unless you want to “sue the USDA, Frank.”

So over the course of the year I tried several times to get the group to try to challenge this and the seed group couldn't bring it upon themselves to do it. And there is a number of reasons for that. One of the most obvious reasons for it is that the sugar beet seed industry is a big player here in the Willamette Valley. About half of the specialty seed ground is planted in sugar beets. And the way rotations work in this industry is that everybody needs to cooperate and you need to have good relations with the other companies, including the sugar beet companies.

In order to get them to cooperate with you, if you are doing your crop rotations, you need to be able to have an agreement with the company whereby you can use this location this year if I can use this location next year. There's this kind of a land dance that has to happen between all the companies. And, quite frankly, companies were afraid that if the sugar beet industry was put off by the rest of us that they might make it more difficult for us to do our business.

Oregon's Willamette Valley is an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. (Photo: Don Hankins)

So, nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of the sugar beet companies, except I guess eventually I did. I gave a talk to a slow food group in Portland (Oregon) in October 2007, and that is where essentially I announced to the public that our region had gone genetically engineered. The public was just like the rest of us, the public did not know this. Nobody who bought seeds in the valley (gardeners, farmers, consumers) knew about this.

I did my presentation on growing organic seeds in the Willamette Valley and within a few days I got a phone call from a law student who had been an intern at the Center for Food Safety. And she knew that the Center for Food Safety was interested in the Roundup Ready sugar beet issue. So that’s kind of a long story, but that's the whole story of how I became involved. I just happened to be sitting in the room when the sugar beet seed industry admitted to everyone that they had already made this move some months before and that they were just now getting around to telling the rest of us about it.

If there's a contamination event, nobody hears about it. It's a personal matter between the person who was contaminated and the person who did the contaminating. And nobody wants to talk about that. No one would ever admit that they were contaminated by GMOs because then the customers would not buy that seed.

And in fact as it has shaken out, these conversations were happening in 2007, the suit was filed in January 2008. And the way the conversation has evolved since then, because it became a big public issue and suddenly the public knew about it, then suddenly the buyers of the conventional growers in Europe, Japan and Korea, those buyers did hear about the issue. And those buyers let our beet and chard growers know in no uncertain terms that they were not going to buy any contaminated seed.

In the end, what we were told this past January in a meeting was that one of the members of our group who had a multimillion dollar contract with a European seed company, well that contract disappeared. The reason it disappeared was because the European seed company perceived a risk of contamination. And because this was going to be a valuable seed contract, they did not wish to take the risk of growing it in the valley. So instead, they went to Washington state and they bought their expensive hybrid Swiss chard from a Washington source rather than from a Willamette Valley source.

And this is precisely what I envisioned happening. The owner of this company when he reported that he had just lost a multimillion dollar contract, not because of contamination but because of the fear of the risk of contamination, suddenly then the conventional growers completely got it. But this was long after. It was too late for any of them to speak up in relation to this case.

I think I have as much right to grow seeds and market seeds as anybody. As an organic grower, if I'm contaminated by genetically modified crops, then I can't sell my seeds.

Jessica: So like you said, even the threat of a risk of contamination has already cost business.

Frank: Indeed. The fact is that I believe that the people who buy Swiss chard from me and table beets have begun to look for other places to buy it. In fact, I'm sure it's happened.

Jessica: The issue is genetically modified sugar beets. How is it that sugar beets are contaminating chard seed? Can you explain that process a little bit?

Frank: Sure. Sugar beets are the very same species as Swiss chard and table beets. There's no difference. They are precisely the same species, Beta vulgaris. They’re just selected for different attributes. Swiss chard is selected to have big leaves and beets are selected to have big roots. And sugar beets are selected in particular to have roots that are very high in sugar content and that have no color. They're perfectly white. So the sugar beet seed industry, there's nothing that scares them more than somebody growing red chard because if red chard crosses to their sugar beets, that's bad for them because suddenly their sugar beets have red stems and their pink and it makes pink sugar. They understand contamination from their point of view. They don't want to be contaminated by red chard.

But there's some differences here. One of the differences is that if a Swiss chard or a red table beet crosses into a sugar beet, that cross is obvious. The problem is that when it comes to genetically engineered sugar beets, you can't see that trait. The genetically engineered trait is invisible. The only way to test for it is to spray the plant with Roundup, for heaven sakes.

So the very first thing that occurred to me was, well, if a Swiss chard grower is contaminated by a Roundup Ready sugar beet, the farmer who's using that contaminated seed to produce salad greens would never notice the contamination. It would not be obvious at all. And so those GMO salad greens would essentially just go in the bag along with everything else because there's nothing to indicate that they're not normal.

I think I have as much right to grow seeds and market seeds as anybody. As an organic grower, if I'm contaminated by genetically modified crops, then I can't sell my seeds. And USDA showed that it was not really paying attention when it made the statement that, well actually Mr. Morton can sell contaminated seed. It's just that the people that would plant that seed can't intentionally plant genetically engineered seed. If the buyer doesn't know about it, then they're not breaking the rules related to organics because they don't know they're planting genetically engineered seed. So if Mr. Morton would keep his mouth shut, then nobody would be breaking the rules.

That's an exaggeration to some extent, but I was actually told that if I didn't want my customers to know that my seed was contaminated, I shouldn't tell them. And that just shows that they don't get it. They just don't get it. They're trying to parse the organic rules to say, well, if everybody's in the dark, then everybody's okay. But that's not how organic people feel about the whole situation.

Jessica: Absolutely. So in 2009, a federal court judge found that the USDA had violated the law by allowing genetically engineered sugar beets on the market. What was the judge's reasoning behind this decision?

What concerns me about it [genetically engineered food] is that I do not believe that it's being given a critical look … The way that they're looking at it seems to be, well a little bit of contamination is okay and in terms of whether this is safe to eat or not, the industry that's producing it says it's safe to eat so we'll take their word for it … I don't see independent science being done on it. I see corporate science being done and then that corporate science being rubber-stamped by the USDA.

Frank: Well his reasoning runs right along with my reasoning. His reasoning in our cases was that we proved that contamination was likely to occur. So part of Judge White's reasoning was that the USDA deregulation would likely result in contamination, that contamination removes choice from the system for what an organic grower can grow and what an organic consumer can consume.

Jessica: In February of this year, the USDA decided to allow the U.S. sugar beet industry to continue growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready, genetically engineered sugar beets. What was your reaction to this?

Frank: Well, first of all, just flat out I felt poorly protected by my government. I felt like we had taken our case to court, the court's opinion agreed with us, but despite the judge's opinion, the USDA took the position that they could write some interim rules, which would protect me. So they put those rules in their December 2010 environmental assessment. Then they went ahead and using these special permits allowed the industry to continue on its way.

In my opinion, the rules that the USDA put into place in no way protects me from contamination. In the first place, they say that four miles is a sufficient buffer for seed protection, but I go back to the data produced by the sugar beet industry in which they said that indeed four miles is not far enough. So when the USDA's environmental assessment came out with a rule that four miles would be required, well that's not protecting us. I don't think that protects us.

So basically my feelings were that I was being poorly protected by my government and that my government seemed to want nothing more than to bend over backwards to make sure that these genetically engineered crops could be deregulated. It seemed very apparent that the USDA is not a neutral player in this, that they're actually promoting the growing GMO crops, I believe, by their actions and by their words. So, anyway, when the ruling came out, I suppose I felt the same way I felt when we first learned about it. No one had really done anything to protect us back in 2006 when the planting began and no one told us and that they still aren't doing anything to protect us here in 2011 where they are allowing GMO sugar beets and conventional sugar beets and chard and table beets to be grown with four mile isolations.

Contamination of seed crops happens in other ways besides pollen being shared. To show the point, scientists studying cotton, which is a completely self-pollinating crop, conventional cotton is still contaminated by genetically engineered cotton and it's not because of pollen wandering from one field to the next. It's because people are just messy and the seeds of genetically engineered varieties just get commingled with the seeds of non-genetically engineered varieties.

Scientists have shown that they've opened a brand new bag of what's supposed to be conventional cotton seed. In there you might find as much as 10 percent genetically engineered seed. Well, that’s an incredible contamination. Ten percent contamination is just out of this world. You can't imagine that in my business. And yet they were finding that and the scientists showed it had nothing to do with cross pollination or cross contamination in the field. It had to do with just seed mixing in the plant where everything gets bagged up. In combines, when a combine comes through and harvests the Roundup Ready cotton field and then they turn around and they go harvest the conventional cotton field. Well, those combines are full of seed from the previous field and they do not clean them out. You cannot clean out a combine effectively.

Basically there are many routes to contamination. So if we wanted to get along, if we wanted not to have cross contamination, the genetically engineered industry would have to do many things. One of the things is, they would always have to have their trait on male sterile sides of hybrids. Any normal open-pollinated types of crops like canola, for example, should probably be disallowed because in the case of canola you cannot keep those genes from flowing.

So if you're going to deregulate Roundup Ready canola, which of course they already have, then you have just said that there will be canola contamination by GE. Carol Mallory Smith, our gene flow scientist here at Oregon State University, made that statement in Science last month. As a scientist, she said, I can say that once genetically engineered crops are released into the environment, there is no way to keep them from contaminating non-genetically engineered stocks. That’s her comment.

So when the USDA insists that deregulation is going to happen, then the way I perceive that is that they are insisting that I must be okay with being contaminated. And that my customers must be okay with buying seed that will have some percentage of genetically engineered traits in it.

Under those conditions, is there a way that we can get along? Not happily. De facto co-existence is what we have right now. There's no difference between what they're asking us to accept and what the condition already is, if you ask me.

So to me you’d have to go way back to the beginning and start this process over if you want to talk about ways that will satisfy farmers like me and farmers like the specialty seed growers in the Willamette Valley. If you want to satisfy us, then we're going to have to have a whole slew of procedures and requirements and whatnot on genetically engineered crops to keep them bottled up.

Table beets, sugar beets and swiss chard are all the same species (Beta vulgaris). Each has been selected for different attributes. (L, R: Jennifer Maiser)

Genetic engineering is of no benefit to me. It's nothing but a threat. And so, what do I have to do? I have to test all of my seed crops, which cost $300 per test to do. If I grow four different kinds of chard or beet in a year, that could cost me $1200 to test those. And the next year, I grow another crop, I have to do it again. I have to do it again and again. There's just no end to it.

To me, this feels like a burdensome tax on my business. That’s feel unfair that I get no benefit, and I have to pay to protect myself.

Jessica: So what is it about genetically engineered food that most concerns you as a farmer?

Frank: Mostly, what concerns me about it is that I do not believe that it's being given a critical look. I think that genetic engineering is something that all depends whether it is a good thing or not. It's just like a chainsaw. It's a tool. So, chainsaws can either be used in a way to maintain a forests in a nice way and heat my house with wood or chainsaws can be used to cut down rainforests and put the whole planet's weather system in a tailspin. Whether or not genetic engineering is a good thing or a bad thing, as I like to say is something we can all argue about over a lot of beer, but the way it's being used right now I don't see the benefit of it. I don't see why it's a net good for society.

And what bothers me is that the look that the USDA gives to genetically engineered crops does not seem to be a hard look. It does not seem to be a critically mindful look. The way that they're looking at it seems to be, well a little bit of contamination is okay and in terms of whether this is safe to eat or not, the industry that's producing it says it's safe to eat so we'll take their word for it. I guess what I’m saying is, I don't see independent science being done on it. I see corporate science being done and then that corporate science being rubber-stamped by the USDA. That bothers me, just that in itself I think is wrong.

I think that the government's job is to protect the public from the wiles of people who want to make money. I think that's what the government is for, is to protect us. Whether it's to protect us from bad banking, bad industrial processes, bad products, bad food, bad water. The government is there to protect the public from the bad actions of industry and others who are trying to make money.

I do not have the sense that when it comes to genetic engineering that anyone is really looking at it very critically. I have the sense that there's a rotating door in the background where the very people that are part of the industry become a part of the regulatory system and then they go back to being part of the industry once they're done in the regulatory industry. That looks bad, smells bad, and I think it is bad. You can see, I think, that it leads to corruption.

What’s bad about biotechnology? What’s bad about biotechnology is that there's so much money to be made because everything related to biotech can be patented and can have intellectual property protection, which actually prevents others from giving that thing a hard critical look. Scientists cannot do research on patented products without the approval of the patent holder. So that in itself looks corrupt, smells corrupt, and I think probably is corrupt. So what I see coming out of biotechnology is the corruption of the USDA, the corruption of the US patent office, and the corruption of our food system and food safety.

That revolving door between Monsanto corporation and the USDA / EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] is just so highly suspect. I don't know how anyone can ignore it.

The views and opinions expressed by guests on “Down to Earth” audio podcast series do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice, its board or funders.

Despite growing concerns of genetically engineered crops, government officials continue to rubber stamp their approval.
In early 2011, the USDA announced the approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa. Learn about Earthjustice's litigation challenging the USDA for failing to properly assess the environmental impacts of Monsanto’s GE Roundup Ready sugar beets and alfalfa: GMOs: Engineering an Environmental Disaster

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