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Published September 17, 2012, 10:43 AM

Canola threatens the seed purity of brassica

Brassicas don’t win a lot of popularity contests. Particularly, broccoli gets regular ribbing as a child-unfriendly vegetable

By: Rita Brhel, Agweek

YANKTON, S.D. — Brassicas don’t win a lot of popularity contests. Particularly, broccoli gets regular ribbing as a child-unfriendly vegetable. Perhaps if this column had something to do with apples or watermelon or potatoes — Lord knows people would freak out if their French fries were messed with — or even carrots, this would have become a national headliner.

There is a region in Oregon known as the Willamette Valley — which is as recognizable in the vegetable world as Napa Valley is in the wine world — that is among the top five places in the world for growing and supplying specialty seed. It’s the place where both large-scale growers and backyard gardeners get seeds. And among these specialty seeds are brassicas, a family of vegetables that includes not only broccoli, but cauliflower, arugula, rutabaga, turnip, radish, kale, cabbage and others.

Canola is another brassica. I never have eaten canola — well, as a vegetable. I use canola oil. But apparently, canola is not a nice brassica — or maybe it plays too nicely with others. Canola, according to Oregon State University research, easily cross-pollinates with many other brassicas, especially turnips, broccoli raab, rutabaga, some kales and possibly radish and broccoli. It loves to interbreed. To maintain seed purity of brassicas in Willamette Valley, the Oregon Department of Agriculture has maintained a canola exclusion zone in the valley — until recently. After a series of behind-closed-doors meetings with farmers who want to grow the plant for biodiesel or cooking oil, the department issued a temporary rule to allow canola — including genetically modified organism (GMO) varieties — to be grown in the valley, unchecked and without regard to the previous isolation zone.

The manner in which the department has done this allows it to skip the requirement of public commenting.

A representative of the Oregon Department of Agriculture said the department was trying to find a way for both sides to share the valley, but it didn’t take long before a lawsuit was filed and the courts have blocked the planting of canola until a court ruling.

The most obvious observation of this whole mess is the gross error the state department made in changing planting zones of a previously banned crop without public announcement or transparency — that secret meetings, especially among law-making institutions, are in and of themselves not ethical. The second, perhaps less apparent, observation is that the state department didn’t recognize that its handling of this valley dispute affects a lot more people than the local producers bickering about geography — that their seemingly flippant decision affects growers worldwide.

As a consumer, you may not think much about seed purity unless you’re into organic gardening. You may not care that this radish is a different variety than this radish over here, as long as they’re fresh and taste good. And biodiversity may seem like one of those nuances that only the tree-hugging people or retired horticulturists really get into. After all, do we really need 50 different varieties of a vegetable?

But here’s a more universal threat that comes with not respecting biodiversity and seed purity: What if we only have a couple different varieties of broccoli and all of the varieties have been tainted with a touch of canola, so essentially, we’re all eating a broccoli-canola mix, and then some disease comes by that attacks canola and we have a worldwide shortage of broccoli. Now, you who don’t care much for broccoli might not care, but broccoli is a wonderful cheap and nutritious veggie especially in the winter months.

Plus, any ruling like this will set the stage for future planting zone decisions. It reminds me of the whole deal with GMO sugar beets — you know, we eat these as sugar — being planted in areas of organic, non-GMO sugar beets. There’s a legitimate concern, especially if you’re a producer marketing non-GMO sugar beets, that the GMO would cross-pollinate with the non-GMO. And of course there’s a legitimate concern if you’re a consumer who prefers non-GMOs.

So it’s a much bigger issue than organic versus conventional producers, and much bigger than the Willamette Valley. It’s something that we should be following in the news, if only through the Internet grapevine and not in the national networks. And even if it is only broccoli.

Editor’s Note: Brhel is a correspondent for the Yankton (S.D.) Press & Dakotan.