A Washington farmer’s complaint that his alfalfa hay was rejected for export because it contained trace amounts of a “Roundup Ready” trait has unsettled an industry trying to satisfy a lucrative overseas market and stay out of the fight over genetically modified food.

Hay growers are quick to point out that genetically engineered alfalfa hay has been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and want no connection to the still-unexplained discovery of unapproved GE wheat plants found growing in eastern Oregon earlier this year.

“It’s a different situation,” said Mark Anderson, chief executive of Anderson Hay & Grain in Ellensburg, Wash.

At the same time, Anderson said the state’s handling of the situation has been “pretty vague.”

The farmer involved intended to grow conventional alfalfa, and bought seed for that purpose, but a broker rejected the hay in late August after it tested positive for genetically engineered material.

Subsequent testing by the Washington Department of Agriculture found a low level of herbicide resistant material in seed provided by the grower. The department described the amount as “well within the ranges acceptable to much of the marketplace.” A second test on plant material turned out negative.

Anderson, whose company has exported alfalfa hay to Asia since the 1970s, wants more clarity.

“They say it’s within an acceptable range — of what?” he asked. “We need to know if it’s conventional or GMO. We don’t want to find ourselves managing in the middle.

“This testing is not black-and-white, that’s our biggest concern,” he said.

Anderson said most of his export customers don’t want to buy Roundup Ready alfalfa. He said his company tests every stack of hay and sets aside any that show the presence of GE material.

The Washington case comes amid an on-going national debate that has sharpened considerably in recent months. Opponents contend that genetically engineered food and forage crops are unsafe or unproven, and that organic or conventional crops could be contaminated by cross-pollination or commingled seeds. Initiative 522, on the November ballot in Washington, would require labeling of most grocery store food that contains genetically modified material.

Most farmers support agricultural biotech research and many believe genetically engineered crops are safe, but say it’s their customers’ preferences that count.

“I think we need to be careful,” said Beth Nelson, president of the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance, an industry group based in Minnesota. “If you’re growing for a sensitive market, then you do need to take precautions.

“It’s not a safety issue, it would be a market issue in this (Washington alfalfa) case,” Nelson said.

Nonetheless, the Center for Food Safety, which has western offices in San Francisco and Portland, cites the Washington hay and Oregon wheat cases as evidence that GE technology is out of control. At the center of each case is Monsanto Co., which produces seed engineered to withstand its widely sold Roundup herbicide. The trait allows farmers to spray for weeds without hurting the crop, which improves quality, boosts yield per acre and increases the price it will command.

Hay is a valuable crop, increasingly exported to Asia and the Middle East to feed dairy cattle or other livestock. American farmers harvested 17.6 million acres of alfalfa in 2012, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The crop was worth an estimated $10.4 billion.

Most alfalfa hay is used domestically, but growers in western states have found lucrative export markets. Japan buys about 70 percent of the hay exported from the U.S.

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 kinds 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 USDA statistics. Premium alfalfa hay ranges in price from $200 to $230 per ton.

The USDA 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.

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