GE Alfalfa Contamination in the US Proves Warnings Right


Dear Friends and Colleagues 

Re: GE Alfalfa Contamination in the US Proves Warnings Right

Alfalfa seed and plant samples taken from an Eastern Washington farm have been confirmed by Washington State’s Department of Agriculture to have been contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically engineered (GE) variety resistant to the company’s herbicide, Round-Up. The testing followed a report by a farmer after a consignment of his hay was rejected for shipment by a broker who found it to contain the genetic trait.  

GE alfalfa was approved for commercial cultivation in 2011 amidst strenuous objections, including legal action, from civil society over a decade. Because alfafa is a perennial crop, widely prevalent in wild/feral forms, and largely pollinated by bees, critics repeatedly warned that GE ‘Roundup Ready’ alfalfa would likely irreparably contaminate natural alfalfa varieties and harm conventional and organic growers’ businesses.

Alfalfa is the fourth-most widely grown field crop in the US covering over 17 million acres with an export market valued at USD 1.25 billion. Alfalfa is also the “queen of forages” for the national dairy industry and especially the organic diary sector, now worth USD 26 billion a year and growing at 20% annually. GE contamination could cause the organic dairies to lose their key source of organic feed. 

This is the second case of GE crop contamination in the US this year. The first involved experimental GE wheat (only approved for field trials) which should have been quarantined or destroyed in 2005 when Monsanto abandoned the project. Following its discovery in a field in Oregon in May 2013, Japan and South Korea temporarily stopped its imports of some US wheat.

“It’s telling that these things keep happening repeatedly,” said George Kimbrell, a senior attorney with Centre for Food Safety. “It’s a systemic problem. We have a failed regulatory system for these crops.”


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Item 1

Exclusive: Washington state testing alfalfa for GMO contamination
Carey Gillam, Reuters
Baltimore Sun, September 11 2013

(Reuters) – Agriculture officials in Washington state are testing samples of alfalfa after a farmer reported his hay was rejected for export because it tested positive for a genetically modified trait that was not supposed to be in his crop.

If it is confirmed that the alfalfa in question was genetically modified, it could have broad ramifications, said Hector Castro, spokesman at the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” Castro said.

Biotech alfalfa is approved for commercial production in the United States. But many foreign and domestic buyers require that supplies not be genetically modified, and the possible presence of GMO modified alfalfa in export supplies could result in lost sales for U.S. farmers.

Just this summer, Japan and South Korea temporarily stopped buying some U.S. wheat because an experimental biotech variety was found growing in a field of conventional wheat in Oregon.

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.

The Washington farmer, who could not be reached for comment by Reuters, reported the problem to state agriculture officials in late August, according to Castro. The department began testing his alfalfa samples on September 3 and should be finished by Friday, Castro said.

He said it is not clear if the farmer bought seed that was genetically modified and mislabeled or if his field was contaminated by some other means. And testing could reveal no contamination at all, he noted.

Monsanto Co developed the herbicide-tolerant genetic trait that gives alfalfa and other crops the ability to withstand treatments of its Roundup weedkiller, and has maintained that its biotech alfalfa presents no danger to conventional or organic growers.

Many U.S. farmers have embraced Roundup Ready crop varieties as aids to improve crop production.

Genetically modified “Roundup Ready” alfalfa was approved by USDA in 2011 to be planted without restrictions after several years of litigation and complaints by critics.

GMO opponents have 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 could devastate conventional and organic growers’ businesses, they said.

But even though U.S. regulators have deemed biotech alfalfa to be as safe as non-GMO varieties, many foreign buyers will not accept the genetically modified type because of concerns about the health and environmental safety of such crops.

ACX Pacific – a major exporter of alfalfa and other grass hay off the Pacific Northwest to countries that include Japan, Korea, China and parts of the Middle East – will not accept any GMO because so many foreign buyers are so opposed to it.

And domestic organic dairy farmers have said that any contamination of the hay they feed their animals could hurt their sales.

“This is terribly serious,” said Washington state senator Maralyn Chase, a Democrat who fears alfalfa exports could be lost if it is proven that GMO alfalfa has mixed in with conventional supplies.

The possibility of alfalfa contamination comes as Washington state voters weigh a ballot initiative that would require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. A similar measure failed to pass in California last year.

The issue also arises as USDA continues to investigate the contamination of the wheat grown in Oregon.

Monsanto discontinued work on the experimental wheat variety in 2005 because of widespread industry opposition and boycott threats by international buyers. The April discovery of the GMO wheat in Oregon triggered lawsuits and led to some lost export sales of the grain.

(Reporting By Carey Gillam; editing by Jim Marshall)

Item 2

New GE Contamination Reported in Washington State Alfalfa

September 12, 2013— An export shipment of alfalfa from Washington State was rejected after the shipment tested positive for contamination from genetically engineered (GE), herbicide-resistant alfalfa.  The news follows on the heels of yet another contamination episode involving GE wheat in Oregon, highlighting the inadequacy of the U.S. regulatory structure for GE crops.  Like the vast majority of all GE crops, both contaminating GE crops are engineered by Monsanto to be resistant to its herbicide, Roundup.

“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.  We warned this administration and the industry repeatedly of the significant risk to farmers and the environment.  Tragically, neither listened, and this latest contamination is the result of that negligence,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety.

At stake is the alfalfa export market, which is the primary supplier to countries like Japan, Saudi Arabia and other countries who prohibit and/or require labeling of genetically engineered foods.  In 2012, the alfalfa market was valued at $1.25 billion and has been growing steadily.

When USDA first proposed commercial approval of GE alfalfa in 2006, CFS successfully challenged the ill-advised decision in court, and succeeded in getting its planting halted, even though Monsanto appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, through 2010.  That Supreme Court decision, the first ever on any GE crop, left the ban on planting in place. 

Because of CFS’s case, USDA was forced under court order to rigorously analyze GE alfalfa’s impacts on farmers and the environment; remarkably, it was the first time the agency had ever conducted such analysis, for any GE crop, in 17 years of approving them.  USDA’s own review concluded that GE alfalfa, unless restricted, would contaminate natural alfalfa, causing the loss of U.S. export markets, as well as dramatically increase pesticide use and drive the rise of Roundup-resistant superweeds.  In December 2010, the Obama administration proposed limiting GE alfalfa to restricted planting zones to prevent contamination; however, in January 2011, under tremendous industry pressure, the agency did a complete about-face and again approved the crop without protections. The administration relied heavily on industry assurances that its “best practices” would prevent GE contamination from occurring, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.  CFS has again challenged that decision in court, however, earlier this year a federal appellate court said USDA had not violated the law in its decision.

“This is the beginning of a crisis that was foreseeable and preventable.  In order to sell more herbicides and patented seeds, corporations have threatened the livelihood of farmers, exporters, and businesses that rely on natural alfalfa.  CFS will continue to do everything it can to protect organic and conventional farmers, dairymen, and the public from this threat,” added Kimbrell. 

Alfalfa Background

GE “Roundup Ready” alfalfa is the first engineered perennial crop, meaning it remains in the ground for 3-6 years and is widely prevalent in wild or feral form throughout America.  Because alfalfa is pollinated by bees that can fly and cross-pollinate between fields and feral sources many miles apart, GE alfalfa is likely to irreparably contaminate natural alfalfa varieties. 

Known as the “queen of forages,” alfalfa is the key feedstock for the dairy industry.  GE contamination will cause organic dairies to lose their source of organic feed, a requirement for organic dairy, including milk and yogurt products.  The organic sector is the most vibrant segment of U.S. agriculture, now a 26 billion dollar a year industry and growing 20% annually.

USDA data show that 90% of all the alfalfa planted by farmers in the U.S. was previously grown without the use of any herbicides.  Due to the planting of GE alfalfa USDA estimates that up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides will be released into the environment each year.

Item 3

Monsanto investigated in new case of suspected GM crop contamination

Farmer in Washington state reports alfalfa shipments rejected after testing positive for genetic modification 

Authorities were investigating a new suspected case of crop contamination on Thursday – the second in the Pacific north-west in five months – after samples of hay tested positive for genetically modified traits.

The investigation was ordered after a farmer in Washington state reported that his alfalfa shipments had been rejected for export after testing positive for genetic modification. Results were expected as early as Friday.

If confirmed, it would be the second known case of GM contamination in a major American crop since May, when university scientists confirmed the presence of a banned GM wheat growing in a farmer’s field in Oregon.

The suspected outbreak comes in the run-up to a ballot measure in Washington state that would require mandatory labelling of all GM foods.

Alfalfa is America’s fourth largest crop, behind corn, wheat and soybeans, and the main feedstock for the dairy industry. A confirmed case of contamination could hurt the organic dairy industry, which is now worth $26bn a year, forcing farmers to find new sources of GM-free feed. It could also hurt a growing export industry. Alfalfa is increasingly sold for export but buyers, such as Japan, do not want GM products.

Campaigners said the suspected case of contamination provided further evidence of the difficulties of containing GM crops.

“It’s telling that these things keep happening repeatedly,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food and Safety in Portland, Oregon. “It’s a systemic problem. We have a failed regulatory system for these crops.”

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has yet to make public its findings on the GM wheat outbreak, did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

The wheat variety was engineered by Monsanto, but the alfalfa farmer’s seed was not. The company said in an email on Thursday it had no direct knowledge of the suspect contamination. But it also argued that existing regulations allowed for some GM impurities in conventional alfalfa seed. The spokesman, Thomas Helscher, further noted that GM was widely grown in America.

“Varietal purity standards followed by the alfalfa seed industry allow for low level presence of impurities, including GM traits, in conventional alfalfa seed,” he said. “The potential presence of impurities is clearly stated on the label. If a grower is growing alfalfa for sensitive markets and wants specialized-GM free alfalfa, they can purchase non-detect alfalfa seed varieties, which is available from alfalfa seed suppliers.”

The latest episode came to light in August, when a grower told the Washington state agricultural department some of his crop had been rejected for export after samples indicated the presence of GM material. The grower told officials he thought some of his seeds may have been mislabelled, according to Reuters, which broke the story.

GM alfalfa was the first engineered perennial crop approved by US regulators. It remains in the ground for three to six years and is widely pollinated by honey bees. Campaigners fought its introduction for a decade, arguing GM varieties were impossible to contain. They said escapes could damage conventional varieties. The crop was approved just two years ago.

In the case of the earlier contamination, GM wheat was never approved for human consumption. The crop had been raised on an experimental basis, and all samples were supposed to be have been quarantined or destroyed by 2005. The discovery of GM wheat on a farmer’s field in eastern Oregon caused Japan and South Korea to temporarily halt some US wheat shipments.

In that instance, Monsanto spokesmen said repeatedly that the company believed the contamination was the result of sabotage.

Item 4

Genetically modified alfalfa confirmed in Washington test sample
The Associated Press
, September 13 2013

SPOKANE – Alfalfa seed and plant samples taken from an Eastern Washington farm contain a low level of genetic modification, even though the farmer reportedly did not want to grow such crops, the state Department of Agriculture announced Friday.

The agency said the samples showed a low-level presence of a genetic trait called Round-Up Ready, meaning they are able to tolerate the well-known herbicide. The tests did not reveal the percentage of Round-Up Ready presence in the samples. The testing was ordered after a hay farmer who intended to grow alfalfa that was not genetically modified had his crop rejected by a broker who found evidence of genetically modified pesticide resistance.

“This is the end of the process for the Washington state Department of Agriculture,” said Mike Louisell, a spokesman for the agency.

The results were shared with the farmer and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said. The federal agency will make its own decision on whether to take any action in the case, he said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not available for comment late Friday.

The name of the farmer has not been released.

Round-Up Ready alfalfa, used as animal feed, has been approved by the federal government and is grown for both the domestic and export markets, the state said.

“There is strong market demand for Round-Up Ready alfalfa and conventional alfalfa varieties,” the state agency said in a press release.

The samples were tested at the agency’s Yakima, Wash., lab.

State Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, said the incident shows the dangers of genetically modified crops.

“Our state’s farmers are becoming collateral damage to the reckless practices of the agriculture industry in this country,” Chase said. “More than 60 of our trade partners throughout the world have bans on the import of unlabeled GMO foods.”

Genetically modified alfalfa is legal to grow and sell in the U.S. That makes this incident different from May’s discovery of genetically modified wheat in an Oregon field. Modified wheat is illegal in the U.S. outside of licensed test fields.

Consumers have shown increasing interest in avoiding genetically modified foods, so it has been important to separate them from products that are unmodified.

After the broker discovered the alfalfa was genetically modified, the farmer contacted the state Agriculture Department in late August, and tests began after Labor Day, Louisell said.

Pesticide-resistant alfalfa was developed by Monsanto Co. and has been licensed to several companies.

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher said Thursday that major importers of U.S. alfalfa, including the United Arab Emirates, Japan and South Korea, have no restrictions on genetically modified crops, and negotiations with China over imports of modified alfalfa are ongoing.

A group in Washington calling for more rigorous food labeling said the incident shows the need for more scrutiny.

“This really does go to show that some of our trading partners are sensitive to genetically engineered crops,” said Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the Yes on 522 campaign, which is pushing a fall ballot measure that calls for labeling at the seed level.

Genetic modification can be as simple as identifying desirable traits in a plant and breeding them into a crop, sometimes forming a new species.

What many markets fear, particularly Europe and parts of Asia, is the impact of recombinant DNA on the human body in ways we haven’t yet understood. That includes the potential for desirable traits in one species to transfer to another species, where the trait would be harmful. This is true of herbicide-resistant wheat and alfalfa. If such herbicide resistance were accidentally to slip into the DNA of a weed, for instance, it could form a superweed, impossible to kill with modern methods.



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