Seeding Canola, Ceding the Willamette

The debate around canola production in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is not new. For years proponents have lobbied to remove planting restrictions to encourage canola production for biofuel. (See OSA’s statement from 2007.) The canola exclusion zones were put in place after substantial research and community dialogue. They protected the region’s unique growing conditions, which support myriad agricultural sectors, including many important vegetable seed and food crops.

Last year the controversy grew to a new level when the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) adopted a temporary rule that allowed canola production in areas where it was previously banned. The temporary rule was quickly terminated after the ODA was bombarded with protest from the food and farming community, in addition to a successful legal action that resulted in the Oregon Court of Appeals stepping in to stop it. But since that success, the ODA has adopted a final rule that expands canola production in the Willamette Valley and threatens to diminish an invaluable region for seed production.

While questions and issues are seemingly regional in scope, canola production in the Willamette Valley affects specialty seed production decisions – and potentially the diversity of seed options – across the U.S. as well as overseas.

Canola is a threat to the Willamette Valley’s thriving vegetable seed industry for two main reasons. Canola cross-pollinates with other Brassicas like turnip and broccoli, impacting the genetic integrity of these relatives if they cross, and making the seed unmarketable. Furthermore, most canola is genetically engineered, posing challenges for farmers (especially organic) who need to avoid GE material in their seed crops. But even if most canola didn’t contain a GE trait, we would still be having this debate and there would still be as much opposition. Genetic integrity of seed crops is threatened when seed producers cannot avoid unwanted traits, GE or not, that impact the purity and thus marketability of their seed crop. For example, a seed lot will be rejected if more than three out-crossed seed per 1,000 seed are found.

Canola cross-pollinates via wind and pollinators (some traveling as far as five miles). Canola seed pods are also prone to shattering, and canola seed remains dormant in the soil for two or more years. Volunteer canola plants serve as vectors for pollen transfer, creating significant challenges for containment. One California study found thousands of volunteer plants (per hectare) that resulted from dormant canola seed planted four years prior.

Cross-pollination isn’t the only problem. Canola increases disease and pest pressures for seed and fresh vegetable producers. The concern is that canola will serve as reservoirs for important pests, such as the cabbage maggot. Another disease of great concern is white mold. Research points to the need to take a precautionary approach by not allowing canola in this region.

The Willamette Valley has an ideal climate for seed production, with mild winters and warm, dry summers. The other four areas with similar climates for commercial specialty seed production include parts of British Columbia, Chile, the Mediterranean, and Australia. Some countries with similar conditions to the Willamette Valley, like France, have allowed canola and consequently saw their seed production industry decline. Several international companies now produce seed in the Willamette Valley.

The region’s specialty seed industry is valued at $50 million (compared to the canola industry’s estimated value in the region of $3 million). These small acres of specialty seed also represent a majority of the world’s Brassica seed production. The genus of Brassicas includes many vegetable crops important to our diet, including broccoli, radish, turnip, and rutabega. The genus also includes canola and mustards, as well as weed species. Brassica specialty seed crops are profitable to growers, even when acreage is small. A report commissioned by the ODA estimates that the Willamette Valley produces more than 90% of the European cabbage, Brussel sprouts, rutabega, and turnip seed, and 20 – 30% of radish, Chinese cabbage, and other Asian Brassica vegetable seed.

At a recent Oregon state legislature hearing, a Japanese seed company testified in support of House Bill 2427, which aims to ban canola production in the region: “If canola production is allowed … my company and other companies will immediately start looking for other places to produce our seed.” Some specialty seed companies have threatened to pull all seed contracts (not just Brassicas) from the Willamette Valley if canola is allowed.

It’s clear that the consequences of sacrificing this region — the last in the U.S. most ideal for Brassica seed production — greatly outweigh the benefits to the canola industry. Precautions are necessary to safeguard these unique growing conditions and the regional economy. Organic Seed Alliance is especially thankful for the good work of Friends of Family Farmers. They’ve been working tirelessly to reverse the ODA’s final rule to expand canola production in the Willamette Valley. Currently, they’re organizing around House Bill 2427. (See OSA’s opinion piece in support of this bill.)

If you’re not an Oregonian, remember that the outcome of this decision may extend to your backyard garden or dinner plate – whether you live in Delaware or Denmark. If you haven’t been keeping tabs, get caught up by reading the timeline of events below and stay tuned through our Seed Broadcast blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

August 3, 2012: ODA published a temporary rule allowing canola production in areas previously protected in the Willamette Valley.

August 16, 2012: Thanks to good organizing by Friends of Family Farmers, and legal work by the Center for Food Safety, the Oregon Court of Appeals granted a stay to the temporary rule, meaning canola cannot be planted in previously protected areas until other rules are finalized.

September 28, 2012: ODA held a public hearing in Salem, Oregon, that attracted widespread opposition to the proposed permanent rule.

October 18, 2012: ODA extended the comment period to November 2nd, 2012, and convened a Canola Advisory Committee. (Friends of Family Farmers point out the committee was not tasked with reaching consensus.)

November 2, 2012: ODA closed the public comments on its proposed permanent rule.

January 23, 2013: ODA held a public hearing before closing the final rule comments on January 25, 2013.

February 7, 2013: ODA adopted a final rule that expands canola production by a maximum of 2,500 acres in an area where it was previously banned.

March 19, 2013: The Oregon state legislature’s Agriculture and Natural Resources committee held a public hearing on House Bill 2427, which aims to ban canola production in the Willamette Valley. The committee needs to vote by April 8, 2013, or the bill will die.

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