The USDA announced this week that the discovery of genetically modified material in a non-GM alfalfa field in Washington is a "commercial issue" and will not be investigated by the agency. GM alfalfa has been deregulated – or approved by the USDA for commercial sale – since 2011.
The contamination, which could either be a result of cross pollination or direct contamination of purchased seed, was first reported to the Washington Department of Agriculture in August. The presence of GM material was confirmed Sept. 12, a spokesman said.
GM alfalfa opponents say the contamination could threaten trade of the crop because many importing countries, such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, reject GM materials. According to the Center For Food Safety, which challenged the deregulation of GM alfalfa in a federal court tin 2006, the situation highlights "the inadequacy of the U.S. regulatory structure for GE crops."
"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," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety. "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."
But according to the WSDA, testing of the alfalfa revealed that while it did contain "a low-level presence" of the GM trait that makes it resistant to glyphosate application, the levels were "well within ranges acceptable to much of the marketplace."
"There is strong market demand for Round-Up Ready alfalfa and conventional alfalfa varieties, including those with low-level presence of Round-Up Ready traits, both domestically and abroad," a WSDA statement concluded. Like the USDA, it will not be taking further action to determine the cause of the contamination.
Instead, the discussion is likely to spill into the commercial realm. According to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection service, the presence of approved GE traits in a non-GE crop is a commercial issue and "the agriculture industry has approaches to minimize their occurrence and manage them when they occur."
The alfalfa situation is different from the discovery of GE wheat in an Oregon field this spring because GE wheat is not commercially available. Testing of such varieties are still regulated by USDA.
The discovery does, however, shake loose continuing uncertainty on the part of special interest groups that previously litigated against GM alfalfa's deregulation.