Food safety group demands U.S. probe in tainting of alfalfa crop

Reuters

By Carey Gillam

Sept 27 (Reuters) - A food-safety advocacy group demanded onFriday that the U.S. government investigate how a Washingtonstate alfalfa crop became tainted with a genetically modifiedtrait that was illegal when the seed was purchased.

The Center for Food Safety said it was basing its legalpetition on evidence that the seed used by farmer Joseph Peilato plant the crop was purchased in the year before the biotechvariety was granted final regulatory approval by the U.S.Department of Agriculture in 2011.

In August an exporter to Asia rejected Peila's hay cropbecause it tested positive for the genetically engineered trait,developed by Monsanto Co, found in "Roundup Ready" alfalfa. Manyforeign buyers will not accept crops that contain themodification.

"Not only was the presence of GE alfalfa in ... Peila'salfalfa seed unlawful, the contamination exposes (him) and otherfarmers to huge potential losses," said George Kimbrell, alawyer with the center. "USDA regulations make it clear that anylevel of contamination from unapproved GE plant material isunlawful."

The discovery of the contamination has highlighted thedifficulties of keeping conventional and organic seed suppliesfree of biotech traits, say critics of U.S. regulatory policieson genetically modified crops. It has also heightened concernsthat the USDA is not doing enough to stop such contamination.

The USDA said on Sept. 17 it would not take any action inPeila's case because the Roundup Ready alfalfa is now anapproved crop.

But Peila - one of the first U.S. farmers to make a publiccomplaint about alfalfa contamination - said he had purchasedthe seeds before the USDA granted final approval in 2011. Toback up his contention, he has provided Reuters with documentsincluding a 2010 sales receipt, bag labels and independent andstate testing results.

"This seed was planted in 2010. It should have never beencontaminated, period," the 40-year-old Peila said. "My wholemanagement practice and marketing (are) thrown out the window.This scares me to death."

The Roundup Ready alfalfa seed was initially approved byregulators in 2005, but a lawsuit by the Center for Food Safetyled to a federal court injunction keeping it off the market from2007 to 2011, when the USDA granted final regulatory approval.

USDA spokesman Ed Curlett said on Thursday that thedepartment has no intention of launching an investigation. Hesaid because seed production with the Roundup Ready trait hadoccurred before the injunction, it has been known thatconventional alfalfa seed in some lots produced after theinjunction had low levels of the trait.

The incident comes at a time when the U.S. government istrying to establish protocols for what it calls "co-existence"of biotech crops with conventional and organic crops. The aim,it says, is to protect the purity of supplies.

But it revives claims from critics that co-existence isimpossible, and allegations that agricultural regulators arefailing to protect farmers who want to ensure the purity oftheir conventional or organic crops.

The USDA and the companies that produced the Roundup Readyalfalfa seeds said traces of the genetically engineered trait inconventional crops was not out of bounds. They said they werenot aware of any evidence that the tainted seed was sold beforefinal regulatory approval.

"The low-level presence of GE traits in that seed is withinthe amount allowed under federal law and industry guidelines,"said Rebecca Lentz, a spokeswoman for Forage Genetics Inc, whichdeveloped Roundup Ready alfalfa in partnership with Monsanto.

"CO-EXISTENCE" GOAL

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week thatthe department was seeking public comment on how to achieve theco-existence goal. A USDA advisory committee is trying to setstandards for compensating farmers whose crops are contaminated,and mitigation techniques to minimize gene flow between crops.

"USDA supports all forms of agriculture and wants eachsector to be as successful as possible providing products tomarkets in the United States and abroad," the USDA said as partof Vilsack's announcement.

Roundup Ready alfalfa contains a gene that makes the plantsable to tolerate treatments of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide tokill weeds. Many of the Roundup Ready crops have been popularwith U.S. farmers and are widely used across the country.

But many supporters of organic and conventional agriculturehave warned for years that genetically altered crops aremingling with and eroding the supply of non-genetically alteredseed. They pointed to alfalfa as especially difficult to keepseparate because of the perennial nature of the crop.

Peila said he is disappointed the government is not doingmore to protect markets for growers of non-GMO crops. He is nowseeking a domestic buyer for his crop and fears he will receivea lower price for his alfalfa and likely not regain any exportbusiness.

"They (the USDA) are not protecting us," he said in aninterview with Reuters. "We fear a loss of all conventional seedin the near future."

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