PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Before residents in southern Oregon overwhelmingly voted to ban genetically modified crops last month, farmers negotiated for months with a biotech company that grows engineered sugar beets near their fields.
Their goal was to set up a system to peacefully coexist, an online mapping database of fields to help growers minimize cross-pollination between engineered and non-engineered crops.
But the effort between farmers and Swiss company Syngenta failed, leading to the ban.
Last October, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber directed the state's Department of Agriculture to undertake something far more ambitious than that failed mapping effort — map GMO field locations across the entire state and establish buffer zones and exclusion areas for GE crops.
The move was spurred by several instances of genetic contamination in the region that rendered non-engineered crops unsellable on the export market.
If the mapping goes ahead, Oregon would be the first state to map fields and mandate preventive measures for modified crops. Advocates say Oregon could become a model for the rest of the nation.
The failed mapping effort in southern Oregon illustrates the challenges in reaching a consensus on GMO mapping amid mutual mistrust, a dearth of regulations and intense consumer attention.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture committee has recommended informal neighbor farmer agreements and an insurance system to pay for damages resulting from GMO contamination. But organic farmers are pushing for more disclosure, formal prevention measures and a system to hold GE growers liable for cross-pollination.
In Oregon, where over 200 crops are cultivated on nearly 24,000 farms, most crops do not have genetically modified counterparts, as only a handful of GE crops such as corn, alfalfa and sugar beets are permitted in the U.S.
Cross-pollination can occur when two crops within the same species flower simultaneously in nearby fields and pollen is carried from one to another via wind, insects, machines or human activity. Genetic engineering is prohibited in U.S. organic crops and many countries restrict imports of engineered products.
"There's this need, a perceived need and real need in some markets, that they need zero contamination. And that is very difficult to achieve," said Carol Mallory-Smith, professor of weed science at Oregon State University.
Already, dozens of seed associations across the nation — organizations for farmers who grow crops for seed — do mapping, also called pinning, and set isolation distances among crops to limit cross-pollination.
Some biotech companies participate in such mapping. But the efforts are voluntary and spotty, with locations and dates of planting available only to fellow growers, not officials or the general public.
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