Yesterday, specialty seed growers filed suit against the state of Oregon for allowing the planting of canola on 1.7 million acres of ag land in the Willamette Valley. As the Statesman-Journal reports, farmers are worried about the potential of genetically modified canola cross-pollinating with valuable crops like broccoli or rutabaga.

Before yesterday, I hadn’t heard much about the canola ag industry, GMO or otherwise. But it looks as though this is a story that will continue to play out for some time in the Willamette Valley, so I touched base with Russ Karow, head of the Department of Crop and Soil Science at Oregon State University. After my conversation with Prof. Karow, I came away with five main take-aways about canola:

1. Canola is actually “rapeseed.” Recognizing the marketing limitations of a food product called rapeseed, the name was modified in Canada for a new variety of oil from the seed.

2. This crop is not new to Oregon. In the 1980s, canola was cultivated in the Willamette Valley. Karow estimates that a few thousand acres were grown over a few years. But  the price for the seed dropped to the point of not being profitable. Back then, seed contamination would have been an issue. But Karow says the specialty seed industry wasn’t as big back then as it is now, so there wouldn’t have been as many growers worried about contamination.

3. Canola cultivation could give grass and grain fields a rest. Most of the Willamette Valley is planted in grass and grain seed and fields need to be rotated every few years to get rid of weeds.

“If you’re growing grass or wheat than you get grassy weeds,” says Karow. “It’s difficult to control a grass weed in a grass crop. So you need a broad-leaf crop every few years.”

Enter canola, a broad-leaf crop that’s perfect for large-scale planting and profitable to harvest.

4. Canola needs at least a five-mile buffer. Prof. Karow says that bees will travel long distances to pollinate the attractive, yellow flowers of canola plants. The wind can carry canola pollen, too. In its new rule, the Oregon Department of Agriculture designated the boundaries for canola production to minimize potential for contamination.

Canola contamination has happened elsewhere. In some European countries, canola contaminated the seed of specialty crops, and the seed of those crops is different now. “[Farmers] tend to grow more forage specialty seeds, rather than vegetable specialty seeds,” says Karow. The contamination de-valued those specialty seed crops, and specialty growers suffered.

5. Most canola is genetically modified. The Federation of Family Farmers, one of the groups that filed suit against the state, says that 90 percent of canola is GM. In addition to general concerns about cross-pollination, some specialty growers are worried that the possible contamination of GM canola could close them off from some markets (like Europe, where GM crops are prohibited).

But GM canola might be useful to grass and grain growers who plant the crop for weed management.

“You’d be able to use less herbicide on a ‘Roundup Ready’ canola,” says Karow.

There are no easy answers here, and if anything the controversy is a reminder of the high value of ag land in the Willamette Valley. “We’ve got a land base here that is unique,” says Karow.

“As populations increase we’re going to have to look at resource use and the land’s limitations. We’ve not come up with solutions on any scale to figure out how we deal with those limitations. That’s the main challenge.”

UPDATE: A stay was granted on the case late this Thursday afternoon, so an injunction hearing is likely later this month.