GM crop decontamination in Oregon

August 2013
Sugar beet. CC photo by USDA on Flickr
Something's happening in the US State of Oregon that we, in Europe, have been led to believe Americans don't do. People are pulling up GM plants: 6,500 GM sugar-beets to be precise.

It's not too hard to understand why such anti-American behaviour should emerge in this particular State. The State has already had more than its fair share of awareness-raising events.

Earlier in 2013, another GM-impossible happened there: rogue GM wheat was found growing on an Oregon farm (see CONTAMINATION DÉJÀ VU - June 2013). Such genetic pollution by a GM plant not approved anywhere in the world could cost American farmers billions of dollars. Despite Department of Agriculture scouring of grain elevators, fields and research stations, the source of the contamination hasn't been found: it could happen again any time, anywhere.

The State is also still trying to contain a 2006 escape of GM bentgrass used on golf courses, which has migrated 13 miles from where it was originally planted.

Oregon seems to have a lively history political activism. Around 1996-2001, the 'Earth Liberation Front', (a loose organisation of autonomous individuals and covert cells) was particularly busy in this State: spray-painting buildings, gluing locks, committing arson and other acts of sabotage to businesses it considered to be unethical. The Earth Liberation Front has also been active against GM development.

Random anarchist action would be a politically convenient explanation, but the story behind the sugar-beet decontamination incidents is much more interesting.

Consumer preference in the US is steadily swinging over to natural produce. As the Organic Consumers' Association explained:
“Maybe it's the high cost of healthcare. Or the fact that organic food just tastes better. But American consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium price for foods and products that they believe are healthier, environmentally sustainable, and humanely produced.”
This is evidenced by the fact that organic and 'natural' products now constitute over 13% of the US grocery purchases. Sales of certified organic products are projected to reach approximately $35 billion in 2013. So-called 'natural' products, which in reality are routinely produced with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, animal drugs, GMOs, and sewage sludge, are expected to exceed $50 billion in 2013.

The Organic Consumers' Association concludes that if these 'natural' products containing GMOs and synthetic chemicals and residues were truthfully labelled, sales of organic would very quickly double.

In Oregon, organic farmers have become increasingly influential players in this up and coming market. Their herbicide-free and pesticide-free seeds find buyers across America.

Last year, organic farmers in Jackson County discovered, quite by chance, that biotech giant, Syngenta, had been leasing 30-40 plots of land for growing GM beet in their midst for about a decade.

GM sugar-beet is grown for bulk processing but can pollinate table-beet and chard which are eaten with minimal processing or raw.

Small producers of organic seed panicked at the finding and within 72 hours had called a meeting of local farmers and citizens.

Their first action was to gather 6,700 signatures for a 2014 ballot measure which would ban GM plants form Jackson County altogether.

Fearing the possible cost of monitoring and enforcing such a measure, the local authorities tried to figure out a politically-correct way for Syngenta and organic farmers to co-exist.

This led to a series of meeting with the biotech company to devise a system of growers' associations with maps and coloured pins to show crop locations, plus the rules and bylaws needed to keep it all together, and how people would get the pins and voting rights.

However, despite “hoping for an open dialogue” (Syngenta), and “representing themselves as wanting to be part of the community”(Jackson organic grower), Syngenta wouldn't say what it was growing nor where. The final meeting ended when the Company's representatives walked out.

Within days, two of Syngenta's GM beet plots were removed.


The message seems clear: Oregon farmers don't believe GM/non-GM co-existence is possible. Considering their own experiences with GM wheat, multiple GM oilseed rape contamination incidents around the world, several waves of genetic pollution of the global rice-supply, illegal GM flax from Canada, GM maize and cotton appearing all sorts of places they shouldn't be, and the growing list of EU 'Rapid Alerts for Food and Feed' involving unauthorised GM in Europe, they're probably right. (For more details see background reading below.)

Presumably the two GM beet plots destroyed were the only two whose location was known. There are another 30-40 GM plots somewhere out there for activists to get their hands on.

Here's a thought. The Oregon Department of Agriculture suggested there was “no justification for committing these crimes”. If defending yourself with a gun (i.e. killing a person who's threatening you) is justifiable in America, why shouldn't defending yourself against a threat to your health by pulling up a few plants be OK?

Background reading on contamination incidents:
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFID FLAX - GMFS Archive, November 2009
WAVES OF GENE POLLUTION - GMFS Archive, January 2011

  • Gaining Ground: Organic and 'Natural' Grab 13% of All US. Grocery Sales, Organic Consumers' Association, Organic Bytes, 1.08.13
  • Kimberley A. C. Wilson, Genetically engineered sugar beets destroyed in southern Oregon, The Oregonian, 20.06.13
  • Kimberley A. C. Wilson, Tensions between Jackson county growers, GMO company peaked days before beet destruction, The Oregonian, 15.07.13
  • Suzanne Goldberg, US Department of Agriculture probes Oregon Monsanto GM wheat mystery, The Guardian, 22.06.13
  • Heidi Ledford, Hunt for mystery GM wheat hots up, Nature News, 17.07.13
  • Earth Liberation Front, Wikipedia

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