Washington alfalfa undergoes GMO testing

Capital Press

Hay exporters say rejection of a Washington state shipment because it contained genetically-modified alfalfa is probably a localized problem, not an industry-wide concern.

Washington state agriculture officials expect test results Friday to show whether an alfalfa hay shipment rejected by a broker contains genetically-engineered material.

An eastern Washington grower reported in August that hay he intended to export was turned away after a broker’s test showed it had traits of “Roundup Ready” alfalfa. The grower, who was not identified, intended to grow conventional alfalfa and bought seed for that purpose.

State Department of Agriculture researchers took samples of the seed and the hay produced from it, and expect to complete testing Friday at a Yakima seed lab, department spokesman Mike Louisell said.

If the seed and hay test positive for GE material, the investigation could broaden into whether the seed was incorrectly labeled or was misrepresented as conventional alfalfa, Louisell said. Various media outlets reported the seed was produced by Forage Genetics, based in Idaho, but Louisell could not confirm that.

If the tests are positive, the state agency will contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture to review the results and possibly take over the investigation, Louisell said.

“It would be their call to go further with the investigation,” he said. 

Although approved for use in the U.S. in 2011 and also approved in some export nations, some individual dairy farms or beef operations overseas do not want to buy genetically-engineered alfalfa.

The news broke as many growers were assembled in Salem, Ore., for the annual National Hay Association convention. Growers contacted at the convention said they weren’t aware of the situation, but acknowledged the public concern over genetically modified products must be taken seriously.

“It’s such a sensitive issue,” said Rod Van Orman, operations manager for Anderson Hay & Grain Co., based in Ellensburg, Wash. “If one guy has a problem, it creates a problem for the rest of us.”

Company chairman Ron Anderson, who began exporting hay to Japan in the early 1970s, said his company routinely tests hay it raises itself and buys from other growers throughout the Northwest.

“When you ship to other countries, you’ve got to know what’s in your hay,” Anderson said.

The Center for Food Safety, a persistent opponent of biotech food and forage crops, said the “contamination” is a result of the government’s willingness to accept industry’s assurances of safety.

“For nearly a decade, Center for Food Safety has vigorously opposed the introduction of GE alfalfa, precisely because it was virtually certain to contaminate natural alfalfa, among other severe environmental and economic harms,” Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell said in a prepared statement.

The group considers the Washington incident in the same light as the discovery this past spring of unapproved genetically modified wheat plants in an eastern Oregon field. Japan and Korea temporarily suspended purchases of soft white wheat from the Pacific Northwest after the finding, which remains under investigation by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

That comparison was rejected by Beth Nelson, president of the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance, based in St. Paul, Minn.

“That’s a completely different thing,” she said. “GE wheat has never been approved for sale in the U.S., but Roundup-Ready alfalfa has been deregulated in the U.S. and deemed safe by APHIS .”

Nelson said her alliance supports the use of biotechnology, which allows growers to have a choice in what to produce and what market to grow for.

The alliance also has developed Best Management Practices that have been adopted by major suppliers of alfalfa seed. Genetic purity standards set a 5 percent threshold for the adventitious presence of off-types, one of which is genetic engineering. The threshold for certified seed is 2 percent, “and we don’t expect to get to zero.”

Pacific Northwest hay and straw have been hot commodities in the past few years as demand and price increased due to an expanding export market and drought that reduced the harvest elsewhere. In 2011, hay was Oregon’s third leading crop, with $638 million in gross farm sales, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.


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