Gas vs. Grass: Canola War in the Willamette Valley

It’s a standoff.

In one corner, canola growers.

In the other corner, seed producers, opponents of genetically modified crops and fresh vegetable farmers.

In Oregon it’s a long-standing feud.

“Reservoir Dogs” Mexican Standoff

For the last decade or so, Oregon’s Department of Agriculture weighed in by prohibiting canola from being grown without special permission on 3.7 million acres in the Willamette Valley.

Why?  Canola likes it here a little too much.  It’s a good rotation crop that doesn’t need to be watered, which means it grows like, well, a weed.  It takes off quickly, and happily cross pollinates with other members of the brassica family, including grasses, radish, turnip, mustard, rutabaga, cabbage.  This is fine for farmers who need to give fields a rest with an alternate crop, or are looking for a quick buck with an off-season crop.  It’s not so good for the $32 million a year specialty seed business, which depends on 100% pure and untainted seeds.  Unlike most agricultural states which focus on a crop or two en masse, say corn or soy, Oregon farms produce over 200 crops, many grown for seed, which is internationally famous for high quality and purity.  If you’re a fan of saving seed species diversity, this valley is heaven.

Canola is a problem for organic farmers.  About 90% of the canola grown in the U.S. is genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides.  Canola’s prolific cross-pollination means that unintended crops end up with GM genes, and organic farmers lose their licenses if their produce is crossed with a GM crop.  The USDA doesn’t make a distinction between GM and non-GM canola, so Oregon’s Department of Agriculture doesn’t either, and offers no relief.

GM canola’s tendency to spread beyond its fields also causes problems if farmers re-plant tainted seeds, even if they do it unknowingly.  See Monsanto v. Schmeiser. Why?  Because once a company creates a genetically modified plant, all its offspring are the private property of said company, forever and ever.  It sounds a little like me taking credit for my son’s senior college project, but whatever.  Farmers have been sued.  Courts have ruled in company-creators’ favor.

From the incomparable Willamette Valley Cartoonist J Compere

If all that isn’t enough, canola attracts cabbage maggots, is susceptible to stem cankers and black mold rot and other insidious plant illnesses, which then spread to other crops.

This issue, like all issues, is complicated.  There are different kinds of canola, which is actually a variety of rapeseed, used throughout history for lamp oil, but until recent incarnations, too bitter for food.  Recently developed strains are now usable for animal and human food, produced from the seeds. The name in fact comes from the abbreviation Can. O. L-A (Canadian Oil Low-Acid).

Anyway, on with the story.  Canola’s well-documented problems were taken note of by Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, and a relatively small slice of the state was set aside as canola-free.  All is well, right?

Enter biofuels.  Rapeseed oil, it turns out, works pretty well as a biofuel, and so the pressure to open up more acreage to GM canola heated up.  Permits for test plots in Rickreall and Baker were issued, with 3-mile protection zones set up around them, and all went well, according to the canola growers.  Then the Department of Agriculture tried to pull a fast one.

On Friday, Aug. 3, just before 5 p.m. the department sent out a news release announcing that they were going to “refine” (i.e. shrink) the no-canola zone.  Temporarily.  (Making it temporary allowed the department to sidestep public notice or comments.)  Planting to begin immediately.


Oregon, however, is not a state of slackers.  Within days, seed growers, farmers and environmentalists filed suit against the temporary ruling.  Over 10,000 people signed a petition asking the department to hold its horses.  23,000 people world wide signed the petition, which gives you an idea of how much people care about this, everywhere.

Given the immediacy of the question, the Oregon Court of Appeals granted a stay to the temporary rule (i.e., in favor of the no-canola plaintiffs),

which will be in effect until …
… the newly drafted permanent rule, which makes the temporary “refinement” of the no-canola zone immutable, takes effect.  Follow all that? Translation: canola will be allowed into the protected zone unless in the coming month public pressure convinces the Department of Agriculture otherwise.  This time the hearing will be public:  9:00 a.m., September 28, Salem, Capital building. Comments also accepted up to Oct. 5 via e-mail or by mail:

Mail to: Canola Hearings Officer; ODA; 635 Capitol St. N.E.; Salem, OR 97301.

As with so many of the things we care about these days, the jury is out.  Will canola be grown in Oregon’s protected agricultural zone?  Does the need for fuel outweigh the need for untainted seeds and crops?  Can canola be grown safely in areas where cross-breeding crops are grown?  To be continued …

Courtesy of Organic Seed Alliance



  • Our valley needs to be advertised for its rare 200 feet of topsoil, its seemingly endless supply of water and its incredible crop diversity. It is a treasure that, if protected, can revive our Oregon economy permanently. Once polluted by foreign strains of vegetation, incompatible with world marketing, it will be impossible to purify. And what for? Bio-fuels that may be obsolete next year? To increase profits for shareholders of giant agri-businesses?

    This shift in policy must require capital; so what type of corporate governance would promote what appears to be an Oregon fiasco. Are there no other drought tolerant crops (not that we need them in rainy Oregon) useful for rotation besides rape seed? Is there no place on earth that’s safe from environmental disasters promoted by business? I hope we wait at least a hundred years or so before we fall for this ploy.


  • Bravo Julia for posting this! I am sick and tired of having GM foods pushed on us. I am aware of that lawsuit involving Monsanto and Schmeiser. The whole issue is maddening. I didn’t know that Canola grew like a weed. It’s sounds like a bully plant much like the chemical companies. Can’t wait for part two! Thanks Julia! 🙂


  • You’d think the superficial hoopla on the news, all the blather about the Presidential campaign is the most important thing in the world, and two inches down, really big things are happening. The Department of Agriculture almost got away with this one. Thanks for the visit.


  • Fundamentally farming is the most essential industry. I think people need to realize that what happens to the food sources affects all of us. I drove through the “Congress created dustbowl” in CA this summer. It’s a travesty. Sections of land in droughts. Because water they were promised and that they paid for was diverted.


  • Thanks for your comment Kourtney. Agriculture is changing rapidly, and many of the changes are under the radar, especially in our agricultural centers like California. Water is right up there in the emergency category. We need figure out (and are perfectly capable of figuring out) better ways to distribute water! (Hope your trip wasn’t all dust bowl.) Best wishes.


  • Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after browsing through a few of the articles I realized it’s
    new to me. Regardless, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back


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