Contamination threatens specialty seed industry, researcher says
By MITCH LIES
MADRAS, Ore. -- A research project to answer in part whether canola poses a risk to Central Oregon's specialty seed industry was abandoned when the oil-seed crop did not survive the 2009-10 winter.
The project left unanswered questions over whether canola can be successfully grown in the region and whether its propensity to spread poses a risk to carrot and onion seed crops.
But former Oregon State University researcher Rich Affeldt, the project's leader, may have uncovered a bigger concern for the region's specialty seed industry.
Affeldt found that non-genetically modified canola purchased for the trial tested positive for the glyphosate-tolerant trait found in genetically modified canola.
Any contamination of the Central Oregon specialty seed crops with genetically modified canola threatens the region's specialty seed industry, Affeldt said.
"Our big economic driver in the area is specialty seed crops, and a lot of those are being exported to places that don't want GMO contamination," Affeldt said. "Background contamination from those crops poses a risk to our specialty seed crops."
Genetically modified canola is commonly referred to as GMO canola or GM canola.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture has restricted canola production in a three-county area of Central Oregon where specialty seed production occurs. Canola production also is banned in most of the Willamette Valley and in parts of Eastern Oregon.
The ban was initiated to protect specialty seed crops from contamination.
Affeldt, who recently left OSU to farm, tested the non-GMO canola seed after a grower requested it. Because GMO canola is widespread, the grower wondered whether Affeldt could find non-GMO canola free of all GMO contaminants -- a concern Affeldt now shares.
"I think we should conduct a more thorough survey of non-GM canola seed to see if you can even buy non-GM canola seed that doesn't have contamination," he said.
Affeldt said the discovery of GMO traits in non-GMO canola seed runs parallel to other scientific discoveries.
"You can't just put genes in one field and expect them to stay there," he said. "They are going to move around.
"If you had a combine that combined a field of canola, then used that same machine to combine carrots or any crop after that, you could have GM contamination from your combine," he said.
Affeldt said he found just 0.01 percent of the glyphosate-tolerant trait in the non-GMO canola seed he tested.
"This is close to the detection limit for the ... analysis, so the level of GM contamination was likely low," Affeldt wrote in his report.
"But the fact the trait is where it ought not to be says something about our ability to handle where these traits end up," he said.
"Before canola is approved for commercial production in Central Oregon, I recommend that this potential for GM contamination be more thoroughly investigated," Affeldt wrote.