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Center for Food Safety Urges USDA to Investigate GMO Alfalfa

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WASHINGTON STATEA public interest group last week called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate how a farmer's conventional alfalfa became contaminated with a genetically modified trait.

In Eastern Washington, conventional alfalfa farmers (Joseph and Michelle Peila) discovered that their crop was tainted with Monsanto's "Roundup Ready transgenes", resulting in exporters rejecting the alfalfa for shipment, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Earlier this month, USDA said it would not "take any action" on the matter because it was "a commercial issue". The agency further noted its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) lacks authority to oversee genetically modified crops that have been deregulated.

But the Center for Food Safety argued USDA retains authority under the Plant Protection Act to prevent harm to export markets. Moreover, the farmers contend they purchased the tainted seed in 2010 before USDA approved Monsanto Company's Roundup Ready Alfalfa for commercial use.

"My whole management practice and marketing (are) thrown out the window," Mr. Peila told Reuters in a Sept. 27 article. "This scares me to death."

At his request, the Washington State Department of Agriculture tested alfalfa seed and plant samples. Previously, the farmer's export company buyer had discovered the contamination, according to the Center for Food Safety.

On Sept. 13, the state agency stated that testing "indicated a low-level presence of a Round-Up Ready genetic trait in the seed, well within ranges acceptable to much of the marketplace." The tests did not reveal the percentage of genetically modified material in the seed.

How the genetically engineered material got into conventional alfalfa seed is an open question that state and federal regulators have not answered.

"We didn't do an investigation," said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. "We were only asked to test the seed."

The United States grows roughly 20 million acres of alfalfa, making it the fourth most widely cultivated crop behind corn, soybeans and wheat, according to the Center for Food Safety. Alfalfa is often used as hay for animal feed.

"The U.S. exports approximately $20 million annually in alfalfa seed and hay to countries that reject GE-contaminated shipments," George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety wrote in a Sept. 26 petition to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Transgenic contamination episodes like this one will cause the permanent loss of these markets for American farmers."

Ed Curlett, a USDA spokesman, said Monday the agency is reviewing the petition.

In a separate matter, USDA has been investigating how genetically modified wheat ended up on an Oregon farm. The Roundup Ready wheat that was detected was not approved for commercial use.

"Because the contaminated [alfalfa] seed was sold unlawfully, before any commercial approval via deregulation, there is no meaningful difference between this situation and the GE wheat situation that USDA is currently investigating," Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, wrote in the petition. "Absent reversal, USDA has acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in determining otherwise in its September 17, 2013 decision." 

Although USDA deregulated Roundup Ready Alfalfa in 2005, the Center for Food Safety successfully challenged the decision in federal court. A district court held the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it deregulated the crop without performing an environmental impact statement (EIS). Later, the U.S. Supreme Court assumed the lower court's decision overturning deregulation was lawful, but the issue was not directly addressed in the case, Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms.

In January 2011, following publication of a court-ordered EIS, Roundup Ready Alfalfa was fully deregulated by USDA. In a fact sheet, APHIS stated the genetically modified crop "is not expected to adversely affect plants and animals, including threatened and endangered species."

Early this year, Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, LLC filed a petition to deregulate another kind of biotechnology-derived alfalfa (KK179) that is intended to make it easier for livestock to digest. The petition was the 20th genetically modified crop awaiting USDA approval, according to the non-profit, Food & Water Watch.

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