The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

May 17, 2014

Battle over genetically modified foods in Oregon

(Continued)

The Oregon vote is the latest battle over the future of agriculture. It is set in this picturesque 41-mile-long valley near the California border, where Syngenta has operated in near anonymity since 1993, and organic farmers have tapped a growing demand for local produce free of pesticides.

Organic farmers realized they had a problem in 2012, when Chris Hardy tried to lease some land and learned it was right next to a field leased to Syngenta. It soon became clear Syngenta was spread throughout the valley.

Farmers started gathering signatures for a ballot measure banning GMOs, and asked Oregon State University Extension to help create a mapping system so GMO and organic corps would each be free of the other's pollen.

After about six months, talks broke down, and the organic farmers went ahead with the ballot measure.

Syngenta, a Swiss company with $14.7 billion in worldwide sales, has been joined by other agricultural giants like Monsanto Co., sugar producers like Amalgamated Sugar, timber companies and farm bureaus as far away as Texas. They have pooled more than $900,000 to defeat the measures.

Their media campaign has focused on convincing voters that enforcing the ban would divert scarce revenues away from sheriff's patrols and jails.

Syngenta referred comment to the Biotechnology Industry Organization. The group's spokeswoman, Karen Batra, said the ban was "not just an assault on the industry; it is an assault on farming. It is telling one group of farmers that you can't farm the way that you want or you need or you think is best for your operation."

The ban's supporters, who have raised a third of what opponents have, say they want to protect their crops from contamination by genetically engineered pollen, particularly chard and beets, which could be fertilized by Syngenta's GMO sugar beet pollen. The pollen wouldn't affect the plants in the ground, but would make it impossible to certify the seeds as organic, reducing their value, whether for sale or planting.

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