Long live the purity of seeds for broccoli

| Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

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 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.

Strong demand exists for both conventional and organic Brassica seeds produced in the Willamette. Yet 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. Food crops that people rely on 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 option for crop rotations, needed to interrupt pest cycles. 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.

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. A buffer of at least five miles is needed for protection.

To try to balance the competing needs of the seed industry and farmers who want to grow canola, the Oregon Department of Agriculture 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 grow canola if they register their planting locations on an electronic map. This ruling to permit canola overturns protections put in place after years of public hearings and discussion.

To be sure, farmers who desire to produce canola have a right to grow a good rotation crop. 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 a professor of anthropology at Emory University and former president of the Society for Economic Anthropology. Neva Hassanein is professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and past president of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society.

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