By JOHN DARLING
for the Mail Tribune
Sugar beets containing genetically modified organisms are being grown in the Rogue Valley, much to the alarm of local organic farmers and food activists who on Monday formed "GMO-Free Jackson County" and vowed to press for a county ordinance prohibiting such crops.
About 50 people formed the organization after Chris Hardy, co-founder of the Organic Village Farm on Ashland's Siskiyou Boulevard, last week spread the word on social media.
Hardy said he had been in talks with Syngenta, a biotechnology corporation, about plans to plant genetically modified beets in several locations near Ashland. He said after his conversations, the company had agreed not to plant them.
But, he said, Syngenta AG, a giant corporation that operates in 90 countries, acknowledged it is growing genetically modified sugar beet seed in small plots on a total of 10 acres in the Medford and Grants Pass area.
Members of the opposing group expressed concern about possible negative health effects of genetically modified food, with Hardy noting that once bioengineered genes blend with natural genes "it's like a barb going in and you can't get it out."
The corporation has permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow genetically enhanced seed and abides by the USDA requirement that it maintain "a four-mile buffer with non-GE beta seed crops to ensure purity of our seed and prevent cross-pollination with other crops," said Paul Minehart, head of Syngenta Corporate Communications in an email from his Washington, D.C., office.
Hardy told the gathering Monday that the local Syngenta office acknowledged it had beet fields near Butler Creek Road, Tolman Creek Road and Normal Avenue, not far from the school garden at Ashland Middle School and that these had been planted in the past two years and were about to be planted this year.
Hardy said, however, that the company agreed not to replant the fields this spring in south Ashland.
Hardy said organic farms and food can no longer be called "organic" if they contain genetically modified organisms, so the presence of fields in the valley has the potential to "destroy" his operation. He said he considers his farm, a mile from the Normal Avenue field, as "already contaminated," since it grows chard, which is in the same family as beets.
"I told them this isn't going to work," said Hardy, who also supervises the organic garden at Ashland High School, a source of produce for school lunches. "He said he would pull off (not plant) a couple fields in south Ashland, on Normal and Tolman ... . We have to strategize on how to protect the food supply."
On its website, Syngenta calls genetically modified organisms "genetically enhanced." Supporters of genetic modification say the genetic changes make the plants hardier and more resistant to weeds and insects and as a result produce larger crops to feed the rapidly expanding population of the earth.
Syngenta says about 95 percent of sugar beets are genetically enhanced and a USDA site shows similar percentages for soybeans. More than 75 percent of corn and cotton acreages nationally are genetically modified.
In his email, Minehart said, "Through world-class science, global reach and commitment to our customers, we help to increase crop productivity, protect the environment and improve health and quality of life."
Members of GMO-Free Jackson County loudly disputed such claims and decried the widespread presence in local markets, including the food cooperatives, of genetically modified food that isn't labeled as such -- and announced the need for labeling as a major statewide goal.
The group decided to work with GMO-free movements already formed in Eugene and Portland.
Catie Faryl, founder of the Center for Creative Change, where the meeting was held, said "Food security is a galvanizing issue."
"They have us over the oil barrel and now they want to do the same with food," Faryl said. "We're working for food security and that means local control of food production and self-sufficiency, not importing 97 percent of our food."
Barbara Comnes said she and other volunteers working on a similar ban in Marin County, Calif.,were called "Luddites" (opponents of technology and progress) but the ban passed and similar bans passed in Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties and are being passed in countries all over world, chiefly in Europe.
Gema Soto, head of Ashland High School's cafeteria, said in a phone interview that it would be "a shame" if GMOs get in the school's organic garden.
"Student gardeners have worked so hard to provide organic food and they expect it in the cafeteria," Soto said.
Hardy pointed out the freshly plowed beet field on Normal, noting it's about a quarter mile from the middle school garden.
One member of the group, Wendy Novickis, said she'd contacted the offices of Ashland Mayor John Stromberg and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, to inquire about starting legislation that would ban genetically modified plantings.
Syngenta, a Swiss "sugar beet breeder and seed developer," operates in 90 countries and has more than 25,000 employees, says Minehart, adding, "Sugar beets are an important crop, which are planted on 1.2 million acres in the United States annually and supply half of our nation's sugar. The value of sugar beet crops is critically important to rural communities and their economies. About 95 percent of sugar beets are genetically enhanced and allow growers to control weeds -- one of their greatest challenges -- in a more environmentally sustainable way."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.