Tests show GM traits in Washington alfalfa samples
By Eric Mortenson
Alfalfa hay and seed collected from an eastern Washington grower showed a low level of Roundup Ready genetic trait in the seed, the state Department of Agriculture said late Friday afternoon. In a brief statement, the department said the level detected was “well within ranges acceptable to much of the marketplace.”
The testing did not indicate the exact percentage of genetically engineered material present in the seed, the department said. The plant material itself tested negative for Roundup Ready traits, but that test is considered less sensitive than the procedure done on seed, department spokesman Mike Louisell said.
While some hay buyers such as organic dairies don’t want any trace of GM material, others accept trace amounts. Roundup Ready alfalfa has been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2011, but some overseas markets reject it.
The Washington agriculture department is discussing the test results with the USDA to determine if further action is necessary, according to the news release.
The investigation began in late August when an eastern Washington grower reported that hay he intended to export was rejected 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. One of the unanswered questions is whether the seed was mis-labeled or mis-represented in some way.
Opponents of genetically engineered food and forage crops have long contended that organic or conventional crops could be contaminated by cross-pollination or mingled seeds. The Center for Food Safety, which has offices in San Francisco and Portland, linked the Washington hay case to the still-unexplained discovery of Roundup Ready wheat found growing in an eastern Oregon field this past spring.
Although it is legal to grow and sell genetically-engineered alfalfa in the U.S., Roundup Ready wheat has never been approved for commercial production. At the center of each case is Monsanto Co., which produces seed engineered to withstand its widely sold Roundup herbicide.
Hay is a valuable crop, increasingly exported to Asia and the Middle East to feed dairy cattle or other livestock. Baled hay exports from California alone increased 23 percent in 2012 over the previous year, with increased shipments to China primarily responsible, hay market analyst Seth Hoyt said in a presentation to growers earlier this year. He predicted sales to China would increase significantly again this year.
In Oregon, hay of all kind was the third most valuable crop in 2012, after nursery products and cattle, with sales of $638 million. Washington’s hay crop was valued at $681 million and Idaho’s was valued at $880 million, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Premium alfalfa hay ranges in price from $200 to $230 per ton.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2011 after a back-and-forth court fight involving environmental groups, individual farmers, and Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, an alfalfa seed company that co-developed and sells the seed. Forage Genetics, which has an office in Nampa, Idaho, is owned by the Land O’ Lakes Inc., a Minnesota-based farming and dairy cooperative.
The Roundup resistant trait allows farmers to spray for weeds without hurting the crop, improving quality, boosting yield per acres and increasing the price it will command.
The Center for Food Safety opposes genetically engineered food and forage crops, and led the fight against Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Senior Attorney George Kimbrell called the Washington state test result “unfortunate.”
“They’re saying it’s contaminated,” he said. “They agree the shipment was properly rejected.”
“We told them this was going to happen,” he said.
He said for some consumers, any amount of GM contamination is too much.
The group maintains that biotech crops are unsafe. Contamination could cause organic dairies to lose a source of organic feed, and possibly lose certification for their products, according to the center.
Industry researchers dispute that, although a Forage Genetics official acknowledged in a 2003 presentation to alfalfa seed growers that management of transgenetic movement through pollen would be “critical to the success of biotechnology applied to improvement of alfalfa.”
Researcher Mark McCaslin told growers that improved fiber digestibility and increased protein utilization would “result in significant increases in milk and beef production from animals fed the transgenic forage.”
A 2009 court document posted on Forage Genetics’ website says the chances of cross-pollination are “infinitesimal.”