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Oregon lawmakers poised to keep limit on canola production amid deadlock


Oregon lawmakers poised to keep limit on canola production amid deadlock

Feb 28, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Lynne Terry
Oregon lawmakers poised to keep limit on canola production amid deadlock
Canola production in the Willamette Valley is limited to 500 acres. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Oregon farmers have been arguing about expanding canola production in the Willamette Valley for nearly two decades, with successive attempts by lawmakers, farmers and researchers to try to resolve the conflict. 

At issue is whether expanded production of canola, which is grown for its seed for use in cooking oil, animal feed and fuels, would harm other plants in the same Brassica family, like broccoli, cabbage, turnips and cauliflower, that are also grown for their seeds.

Opponents say expanding production is too risky and could harm the genetic purity of their Brassica plants through cross pollination, and also bring disease, pests and pesticide drift.

Supporters say canola is safe with proper protections in place, including buffer zones between different crop fields.

In typical Oregon fashion, the Legislature ordered research, a work group produced a report and there’s been endless debate. But the deadlock remains, so this session, yet again, lawmakers appear poised to prolong the current 500-acre limit on canola production in a district between Multnomah and Lane counties through House Bill 4059. The acreage limit, set in 2019, is due to expire July 1.

The House agriculture committee passed the bill in mid-February along party lines, rejecting amendments that would have expanded canola production, and the House passed it, again on party lines, last week. It’s now before the Senate natural resources committee, which held a public hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton and chair of the House agriculture committee, told the committee Tuesday that he was not able again to reach a consensus on how much acreage should be allowed for canola or the size of the buffer zones between canola and other crops. 

“(It) has to be it’s deja vu all over again, right?” Helm said.

The Legislature approved the 500-acre cap in 2013 to allow Oregon State University to study potential threats from canola to other crops. Carol Mallory-Smith, professor emeritus in crop and soil science at Oregon State University, worked on that research and participated in a work group on the issue last year. She said the size of the cap was arbitrary.

“The 500-acre limit on canola production was a compromise so the research that was funded by the Legislature could be conducted on a scale that would provide meaningful results,” Mallory-Smith told the Senate natural resources committee in written and oral testimony. “The 500-acre limit is now being interpreted as a level that was set to protect the Brassicaceae seed industry, which was not the intent behind the limit.”

Fears of genetic modifications

Opponents of expanded production are especially worried about genetically modified canola tainting their Brassica plants, but Mallory-Smith said as a scientist she found no indication that genetically engineered canola, which is genetic modification involving gene transfer, would present a threat.

“Concerns were raised over the production of genetically engineered canola and the harm that would occur if it were planted,” Mallory-Smith testified. “There is no scientific evidence that gene flow from GE canola or any other GE brassica, for example GE cabbage with insect resistance, would be different from non-GE brassica crops. The decision to limit GE crop production is not based on scientific evidence and is regressive.” 

That same view was backed by Rep. Anna Scharf, an Amity Republican, farm manager and wife of a fourth-generation farmer. She said genetically engineered canola has already been grown in the 500 acres and that no one has complained to the Oregon Department of Agriculture or testified about their crops being damaged.

“They’re exaggerated in their fearmongering,” Scharf said. “To my knowledge, ODA has never received a single complaint that a specialty seed crop was infected with GE Brassica.”

She urged the committee to adopt an amendment that would expand canola production to 5,000 acres. It has the support of many grass seed farmers, who are the ones mainly interested in canola. They want to plant it as a rotation crop.

Troy Hadley, a fifth-generation grass seed farmer, said he needs to grow canola to get by financially.

“Multiple times we have made more money on canola than we did the grass seed,” Hadley said. “The grass seed this year was the absolute worst in three generations.” 

But supporters of specialty seed crops held just as firmly to their position in favor of maintaining the status quo until a compromise can be found. Alice Morrison is co-director of Friends of Family Farmers, a group that represents 1,600 mainly small and organic farmers and ranchers in Oregon.

“I wish that we could be moving forward with a long-term policy solution,” Morrison testified. “I’m very grateful for the Legislature’s commitment to keeping the existing protections in place in the meantime. It is absolutely critical that we maintain the existing protections offered to Oregon’s specialty farmers.”

She said it would be too risky to let the acreage limit lift amid the deadlock.

“We risk the loss of an industry that brings millions of dollars of revenue into the state, supports small farmers and grows millions of pounds of food from the seeds it produces across the world. If we make the wrong call here, there’s a chance we will cross the point of no return.”

The committee will vote on the bill on Thursday. If it passes the Legislature, the 500-acre cap will stay in place until Jan. 2, 2028.