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Opinion

Long live the purity of seeds for broccoli

The majority of the world's seed for broccoli, cauliflower, and similar veggies is produced in Oregon's Willamette Valley. But the seeds can be easily contaminated by pollen from canola, which the state recently allowed in the valley. The legislature must ban the canola.

By Peggy F. Barlett, Neva Hassanein / April 16, 2013

A thick mist blankets the Willamette Valley floor at sunset near Springfield, Ore., Jan. 24, 2005. Op-ed contributors Peggy F. Barlett and Neva Hassanein write that the Willamette Valley is one of only four similar growing areas in the world. The issue is not just 'profits for one crop at the expense of another. It’s about the integrity of seeds themselves.'

Thomas Boyd/The Register0Guard/AP/file

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Atlanta and Missoula, Mont.

Oregon has become the latest staging ground for the global debate about contamination of seed by other crops. At stake there is the purity of seed for broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and chard.

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The majority of the world’s seed supply for these vegetables – from the Brassica genus of plants – comes from the Willamette Valley in the western part of the state. This valley (pronounced “will-LAM-it”) is a special ecological zone of good moisture and cool temperatures, ideal for seed production. It is one of only four such growing areas in the world and the only one in the United States.

Yet on Feb. 7, the Oregon Department of Agriculture ruled that almost half the acreage of the valley will be open to canola production, a decision that could threaten the integrity of vegetable seeds because canola pollen can easily contaminate them. Now the state legislature is wrestling with whether to overturn the decision to allow canola growing.

While this debate could be viewed through the prism of genetically modified crops (GMO), which canola often is, strong demand exists for both conventional (non-GMO) and organic Brassica seeds produced in the Willamette. That alone is worthy of their preservation and reason for the legislature to ban the canola.

This is certainly the view of a Japanese seed company, whose production manager testified at a legislative hearing last month. “We get the best seed quality and the reliability of production” in the Willamette Valley, said Takashi Ishizaki of Tohoku Seed Co. “If canola production is allowed…my company and other companies will immediately start looking for other places to produce our seed.”

At the same time, this is not just an issue of profits for one crop at the expense of another. It’s about the integrity of seeds themselves. Damage to seed supplies carries particular risks as the United States faces new challenges from climate change and unusual weather patterns. The food crops that people rely on today are the result of thousands of years of farmer selection. They are a precious human heritage and must be safeguarded.

Canola is seen by non-Brassica farmers as a desirable new option for crop rotations, which are needed to interrupt pest cycles. They want to take advantage of Oregon’s incentives for canola oil seed production for biofuels. The problem is that canola is a close cousin to Brassicas and can interbreed with them.

Canola pollen is spread by wind and bees or other insects. The seeds are small and can easily sift out of a truck as they are transported to crushing mills. Roadside canola can become a weed, and pollen from a single plant can damage acres of carefully nurtured seed fields. Canola seed can stay in the soil, ready to germinate in future years. Tolerance for contamination in the industry is low: More than three contaminating canola seeds in a sample of 1,000 Brassica seeds can lead the whole lot to be rejected.

Roadside contamination with canola has happened before. In Japan, though canola was not grown nearby, canola was found along highways and near ports, apparently seeded during transport to oil-processing facilities. A patented variety of canola seeds was found in Canada to have spread as well, causing farmers to have to change their production practices.

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