Canola field

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is exploring “stacking” its powers to regulate canola as it faces a short deadline to replace existing rules for the controversial crop.

Oregon farm regulators are exploring their authority over canola to see if they can impose restrictions aimed at avoiding cross-pollination with related crops.

While the Oregon Department of Agriculture likely doesn’t have direct jurisdiction over genetic contamination, officials will determine whether the agency can “stack” its existing powers over pests, weeds and diseases to effectively regulate pollen flow.

The decision to research ODA’s regulatory reach arose from a Feb. 22 discussion by a rules advisory committee, or RAC, that’s helping the agency craft new regulations for canola in the Willamette Valley.

Canola is controversial in the region because specialty seed growers fear it will cause problems with cross-pollination, pests and diseases, while the crop’s proponents say it’s no more dangerous than related species.

An existing law that has limited canola production in the valley to 500 acres for the past six years will expire in July, which means the ODA must enact new rules for its production before reaching that sunset.

Meanwhile, the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association — whose members worry about canola’s negative effects — has convinced the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use to introduce a bill extending the 500-acre cap indefinitely.

If the ODA could set “isolation distances” between various Brassica crops under its existing powers in a manner that’s acceptable to specialty seed and canola producers, that could negate the incentive for new legislation governing canola.

“The bill is a placeholder and it won’t be removed until there is enough confidence in the RAC to want to remove it,” said Greg Loberg, WVSSA’s public relations chairman.

If the committee determines that ODA should have new authority to regulate canola, the existing bill can later be amended to reflect such changes, said Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers, a nonprofit concerned about canola impacts.

Lawmakers and legislative committees had until Feb. 26 to submit new bills, which generally must be considered in their chambers of origin by April 9.

The ODA also faces a relatively tight deadline to devise new regulations for canola, which must be ready by early April to have enough time for drafting and public comment.

The concept of an “exclusion zone” with more stringent canola regulations doesn’t seem to have gained traction among members of the rules advisory committee, partly due to the potential complexity of rules along the zone’s borders.

The Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association, which favors canola production, also doesn’t believe there’s justification for regulations specific to that crop, since a study by Oregon State University concluded it doesn’t pose a greater hazard than related species in the Brassicaceae family.

“Picking one Brassicaceae species out of 3,700 species doesn’t feel fair and equitable,” said Anna Scharf, the group’s president, during a Feb. 15 committee meeting. “We need to stop having conversations about one species.”

Commodity canola production could increase the valley’s total Brassicacea acreage more than other food or seed crops in that family have in recent years, thereby raising pest and disease risks, said Greg Loberg of WVSSA during the most recent meeting.

However, other crops haven’t received the same amount of regulatory scrutiny despite surges in popularity, said Kathy Hadley, who grows canola. “We weren’t sitting around this table three years ago when the radish acres exploded.”

A commodity commission for all Brassicaceae crops — including canola and specialty seeds — could raise money for research and promotion while forming an entity that maintains a “pinning map” to prevent cross-pollination, said Jonathan Sandau, government affairs specialist with Oregon Farm Bureau.

“It would be a vehicle to manage conflict resolution,” said Sandau, adding that Farm Bureau was not officially advocating for the idea. “The commission becomes a mediating entity.”

The idea appeared to intrigue members of the rules advisory committee, though establishing a commission was seen as more time-consuming than current deadlines would probably allow.

“This looks like a long-term concept,” said Loberg.

“It’s a good side road for a long-term journey,” said Scharf.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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