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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.

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A 2006 Oregon State University study concludes “the best solution” is “canola-free zones” to protect against growing or transporting canola through the parts of the valley dedicated to the seed industry. Removal of weedy canola plants “would be onerous and perhaps impossible.” A buffer of at least five miles is needed for protection.

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To try to balance the competing needs of the seed industry and the farmers who want to grow canola, the Oregon Department of Agriculture has mandated that the valley be divided into two zones. An exclusion zone of about half the land area will be protected and canola will not be permitted. In the second zone, farmers can receive a permit to grow canola if they register their planting locations on an electronic map, and canola production is limited to a maximum annual total of 2,500 acres. The zones notwithstanding, this ruling to permit canola overturns protections put in place after years of public hearings and discussion among all interested groups. [See editor's note below.]

Seed production in the Willamette Valley is a long-standing industry, and many Brassica seed farms are multi-generational operations, profitable and supportive of a high-value industry. Canola production is known to bring new pest and disease pressures, so seed producers worry that in addition to harming Brassica’s reputation and reliability, harvests may be damaged as well.

To be sure, farmers who desire to produce canola have a right to grow a good rotation crop. And decisions about local land use really belong in local areas.

Yet, seed crops deserve special protections. Ever since agriculture began 10,000 years ago, humans have appreciated the fundamental importance of quality seed for a secure food supply. If consumers want future crops of these Brassica vegetables, they must have reliable seed supplies. Ideal zones for seed production around the world are rare, which makes the case for prudence in Oregon urgent.

Peggy F. Barlett is Goodrich C. White professor of anthropology at Emory University and former president of the Society for Economic Anthropology. She is author of the award-winning "American Dreams, Rural Realities: Family Farms in Crisis" and a public voices fellow with the Op-Ed project.

Neva Hassanein is professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and past president of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society. She is author of "Changing the Way America Farms: Knowledge and Community in the Sustainable Agriculture Movement."

Editor's note: An earlier version did not include the 2,500-acre annual cap on canola production.

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