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.

Thomas Boyd/The Register0Guard/AP/file
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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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