By Carey Gillam
Sept 27 (Reuters) - A food-safety advocacy group demanded on Friday that the U.S. government investigate how a Washington state alfalfa crop became tainted with a genetically modified trait that was illegal when the seed was purchased.
The Center for Food Safety said it was basing its legal petition on evidence that the seed used by farmer Joseph Peila to plant the crop was purchased in the year before the biotech variety was granted final regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011.
In August an exporter to Asia rejected Peila's hay crop because it tested positive for the genetically engineered trait, developed by Monsanto Co, found in "Roundup Ready" alfalfa. Many foreign buyers will not accept crops that contain the modification.
"Not only was the presence of GE alfalfa in ... Peila's alfalfa seed unlawful, the contamination exposes (him) and other farmers to huge potential losses," said George Kimbrell, a lawyer with the center. "USDA regulations make it clear that any level of contamination from unapproved GE plant material is unlawful."
The discovery of the contamination has highlighted the difficulties of keeping conventional and organic seed supplies free of biotech traits, say critics of U.S. regulatory policies on genetically modified crops. It has also heightened concerns that the USDA is not doing enough to stop such contamination.
The USDA said on Sept. 17 it would not take any action in Peila's case because the Roundup Ready alfalfa is now an approved crop.
But Peila - one of the first U.S. farmers to make a public complaint about alfalfa contamination - said he had purchased the seeds before the USDA granted final approval in 2011. To back up his contention, he has provided Reuters with documents including a 2010 sales receipt, bag labels and independent and state testing results.
"This seed was planted in 2010. It should have never been contaminated, period," the 40-year-old Peila said. "My whole management practice and marketing (are) thrown out the window. This scares me to death."
The Roundup Ready alfalfa seed was initially approved by regulators in 2005, but a lawsuit by the Center for Food Safety led to a federal court injunction keeping it off the market from 2007 to 2011, when the USDA granted final regulatory approval.
USDA spokesman Ed Curlett said on Thursday that the department has no intention of launching an investigation. He said because seed production with the Roundup Ready trait had occurred before the injunction, it has been known that conventional alfalfa seed in some lots produced after the injunction had low levels of the trait.
The incident comes at a time when the U.S. government is trying 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 is impossible, and allegations that agricultural regulators are failing to protect farmers who want to ensure the purity of their conventional or organic crops.
The USDA and the companies that produced the Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds said traces of the genetically engineered trait in conventional crops was not out of bounds. They said they were not aware of any evidence that the tainted seed was sold before final regulatory approval.
"The low-level presence of GE traits in that seed is within the amount allowed under federal law and industry guidelines," said Rebecca Lentz, a spokeswoman for Forage Genetics Inc, which developed Roundup Ready alfalfa in partnership with Monsanto.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that the department was seeking public comment on how to achieve the co-existence goal. A USDA advisory committee is trying to set standards for compensating farmers whose crops are contaminated, and mitigation techniques to minimize gene flow between crops.
"USDA supports all forms of agriculture and wants each sector to be as successful as possible providing products to markets in the United States and abroad," the USDA said as part of Vilsack's announcement.
Roundup Ready alfalfa contains a gene that makes the plants able to tolerate treatments of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide to kill weeds. Many of the Roundup Ready crops have been popular with U.S. farmers and are widely used across the country.
But many supporters of organic and conventional agriculture have warned for years that genetically altered crops are mingling with and eroding the supply of non-genetically altered seed. They pointed to alfalfa as especially difficult to keep separate because of the perennial nature of the crop.
Peila said he is disappointed the government is not doing more to protect markets for growers of non-GMO crops. He is now seeking a domestic buyer for his crop and fears he will receive a lower price for his alfalfa and likely not regain any export business.
"They (the USDA) are not protecting us," he said in an interview with Reuters. "We fear a loss of all conventional seed in the near future."