Oregon's Department of Agriculture has made good on its determination to shrink the Willamette Valley Canola Control District, despite ongoing objections from Willamette Valley specialty seed growers, seed companies, clover growers and the Clover Commission, fresh market vegetable producers, organic growers, and Oregon Tilth, the state's largest certifier of organic crops. Each group has its own specific objections to canola. These concerns include genetic cross-contamination of specialty brassica seeds, increased insect and disease problems, weed issues that in turn contaminate clover, grass and vegetable seeds with canola seed that cannot be sorted out from other seed. Organic farmers and certifiers are doubly concerned about the introduction of GMO (genetically modified) canola, as this opens up multiple routes for contamination of organic foods through seed, animal and dairy feed, and pasturage.
This ODA decision is a turnaround to its 2009 determination that canola production represents a substantial risk to the specialty seed industry in the Willamette Valley, a $34 million business with global reach. After a three-year study involving OSU scientists and specialists in agronomy, weeds, insects, diseases and genetic drift, ODA Director Katy Coba ordered that a “protected zone” be established to keep canola production out of the area traditionally covered by the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association's seed isolation maps and associated rules. The 2009 rule contained a clause requiring the agency to revisit the rule at the end of 2012.
Instead, in spring of 2012 ODA notified the specialty seed industry that it wished to reconvene the Canola Advisory Committee, and hoped to find opportunities for Willamette Valley growers to produce canola within the protected zone. This left vegetable and clover seed producers wondering, “What has changed in three years?” Have the hazards of growing canola with regard to pests, diseases, cross pollination, seed contamination and weediness in relation to other valley crops changed?
When it became clear that fresh market vegetable and seed interests, including clover growers, were not willing to change their positions from 2009, the ODA representative Vance Bybee came back with a threat — either work with the agency to modify the boundaries of the control area, or Director Coba would make changes herself, or do away with the control area altogether. When the Canola Advisory Committee was next called to Salem, it was told by the same ODA representative that the state ag board had voted “unanimously” at their quarterly meeting in Ontario to deliver a “mandate” to the Willamette seed industry that the canola control area boundary needed to change in order to provide an opportunity for Valley farmers to grow some canola. No reason was given for a change to the existing rule — it just needed to change.
At this point in the process, ODA became assertive in controlling the negotiations. Each side of the negotiating team was limited to three people (leaving fresh market and organic growers unrepresented), and these people were instructed to keep negotiations confidential between meetings. Clover representatives objected to the secrecy, clarifying that they needed to convey negotiating terms back to their growers. At the request of Clover Commissioner Loren Behrman, the Oregon Department of Justice intervened to advise ODA representative Bybee that requiring confidentiality in a public process was against the law.
It turns out that this was not the only rule-, ethics- and truth-bending that ODA has engaged in during the process. Minutes of the state ag board meeting where canola was discussed have not been released to the public in the 2 months since that meeting (now the subject of a public records request to ODA). Two members of the board and another witness at the meeting have stated that there was no “unanimous” vote (or in fact, any vote) regarding canola, and there was no board “mandate” to change the canola rule or boundary set in 2009. In fact, there was disagreement on the board about the wisdom of reversing the rule. Notably, there was no agenda item listed for canola at that meeting, so most board members were not prepared to discuss it. Nonetheless, the manager of the Rickreall oilseed crushing facility crossed the width of the state to give the ag board a 15-minute presentation in favor of changing the canola rules in time for autumn planting. Once these facts became known to vegetable and clover seed negotiators, it was clear that the ODA was acting in bad faith to force an outcome favoring the introduction of canola into areas where existing agricultural interests will be displaced by canola impacts. Regardless of what specific rules or boundaries may yet come out of the ODA's canola introduction to the Willamette Valley, those most affected by the rule change feel railroaded by the secrecy and the legitimacy of the process, and the decision is being questioned and challenged.
In a news release made just before 5 pm Friday, August 3, 2012, ODA Director Katy Coba said, “We are adopting a temporary rule to allow Willamette Valley growers to make important planting decisions by the first of September as requested by both specialty seed and canola growers.” In fact, specialty seed growers did not request a September 1 decision — only canola proponents made this demand, This timing and the “temporary” rule will provide canola growers the opportunity to plant their crops before a public hearing can be held on the issue. A public hearing is a statutory requirement for a permanent rule change, but not for a temporary rule.
This press release reminds the public, “ODA created the most recent canola control area through administrative rule in 2009 to protect specialty seed crop production by restricting the growing of canola.” But the release does not go on to explain why ODA thinks this is no longer necessary, or why it has taken such an active role in accomplishing a reversal of the 2009 rule. OSU scientists who were part of the three-year canola study advising the 2009 decision were not even notified by ODA that canola was back on the table for introduction into the Willamette Valley. By all appearances, this decision was political — not agronomic, scientific, or caused by any emergency.
The rule does not address the production of genetically modified canola within the protected district. GM canola has been deregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and so, said Director Coba, “It is not within the purview of ODA to address GM organisms, nor does the agency have the expertise and resources to review federal decisions on deregulations. Since canola has been deregulated by USDA, ODA does not differentiate between conventional and GM canola or treat them differently.”
The same cannot be said of seed buyers, who view contamination of seed lots by GMOs very differently than they do contamination by conventional seed or genetics, and who place very different requirements on seed growers at risk for GMO contamination. Brassica seed growers sharing a production area with GM crops will be required to test every seed lot for GMO traits before overseas or organic customers will pay for them. This will place a “gene testing tax” of $300 per seed lot on every brassica or contamination-prone seed species grown here.
Dr. Carol Mallory-Smith, Ph.D., is the OSU specialist on gene flow between crops, including the movement of GMO traits into non-GMO crop relatives. She has stated in public hearings related to the introduction of Roundup Ready sugar beets into the Willamette Valley (and interviews related to the ongoing escape of Roundup Ready bentgrass in eastern Oregon) that while she is not against the adoption of GMO crops in agriculture, she does not believe that coexistence is possible without contamination of conventional (or organic) crops by their GMO counterparts. Contamination is an inevitability during coexistence. Dr Mallory-Smith was part of the OSU canola study team, but she was not notified by ODA of the pending rule changes to the canola control district. After she was alerted to the impending canola rule reversal, she went to speak to ODA on Monday, July 30, to convey her concerns. Her concerns do not appear to have changed the ODA plan to allow the introduction of canola.
For the $35 million Willamette Valley vegetable seed industry, with its heavy emphasis on valuable brassica seed crops being grown for a global customer base, coexistence with canola production is an existential issue with a bad prognosis. During the 2009 Canola Advisory Committee hearings, there was one meeting where the entire committee listened in a conference call as seed company representatives phoned in from all over the world to convey their own experiences with canola introduction damaging their own (former) seed production areas. In their many accents these people all told the same story — in Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain, Korea, Australia and Japan there were once strong seed growing industries, until canola or rapeseed was introduced for oil production. Now they buy from Oregon what they used to grow themselves.
Dan Hilburn, ODA plant regulatory administrator, led the Canola Advisory Committee that established the canola control district around the Willamette Valley in 2009. Hilburn, addressing a meeting of the specialty seed association in January of 2012 emphasized in his comments that he can still hear one of those voices over the phone saying, “You there in Oregon have yourselves a jewel — don't blow it.”