Washington state testing alfalfa for GMO contamination
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 Sept. 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.
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