USDA weighing what to do in case of GMO alfalfa contamination

Mon Sep 16, 2013 3:29pm BST

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(Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture is evaluating whether or not to take action in the case of a Washington state farmer whose alfalfa crop was contaminated with a genetically modified trait that some export customers will not accept, a spokesman said on Monday.

"We're still in discussion with the Washington State Department of Agriculture to determine what if any actions are warranted, what our next steps will be," said USDA spokesman Ed Curlett.

Washington agriculture officials notified the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) late Friday that they had confirmed a "low-level" presence of a genetically engineered trait in what the farmer thought was a non-GMO crop. The trait was developed by Monsanto Co. to make plants able to tolerate treatments of Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller.

State agriculture officials did not say what the low level was, but in a letter to APHIS said it was "within ranges acceptable to much of the marketplace."

The "Roundup Ready" alfalfa is approved for commercial production in the United States. But many foreign and domestic buyers require that supplies not be genetically modified.

The grower in this case, who farms near Royal City, Washington, reported to state officials in late August that his alfalfa hay was rejected for export because it tested positive for GMO, and he had only been growing non-GMO alfalfa.

It was unclear if the farmer bought seed that was genetically modified and mislabeled or if his field was contaminated by some other means, Washington state agriculture officials said.

Curlett said Monday that because the alfalfa is legal, the government could decide just to let the marketplace handle the mixup.

Roundup Ready alfalfa was approved by USDA in 2011 to be planted without restrictions after several years of litigation and complaints by critics. The critics had warned for more than a decade that, because alfalfa is a perennial crop largely pollinated by honeybees, it would be almost impossible to keep the genetically modified version from mixing with conventional alfalfa. Cross-fertilization would mean lost sales for conventional and organic growers' businesses, they said.

USDA and GMO proponents have said biotech and non-biotech crops can co-exist successfully. But opponents said the incident in Washington state shows that non-GMO farmers have to bear the burden and cost of any lost sales if their crops get contaminated, even at low levels.

"Co-existence is a myth," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, which sued USDA to try to stop its approval of biotech alfalfa. "We don't know how to control contamination. They say biotech is just another tool in the toolbox. That is not true. It's a tool that takes over all the other tools and makes them worthless."

Alfalfa is the fourth-most widely grown U.S. field crop, behind corn, wheat and soybeans, and is used as food for dairy cattle and other livestock. The crop, worth roughly $8 billion, was grown on more than 17 million U.S. acres in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Exports of hay, including alfalfa, have been rising, hitting a record $1.25 billion in 2012, according to the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. Washington state is one of the largest producers of alfalfa for export.

Steve Norberg, regional forage specialist at Washington State University, said he is warning farmers that they should test every bag of alfalfa seed for purity before they plant it.

"It's now on the farmers. When they are growing for sensitive markets, they are going to have to beware," he said. "This is just really starting."

(Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by Chris Reese)

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