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Washington farmer says GMO alfalfa a ‘mystery’

An Eastern Washington farmer says he has no idea how genetically engineered alfalfa started growing in his fields.

Joseph Peila said the alfalfa seeds were planted in fall 2010, and genetically modified seeds were not even approved by the federal government until January 2011.

“I want to protect other farmers,” Peila, who farms near the town of Royal City, said Tuesday, explaining why he is coming forward to tell his story.

Peila sold 70 acres of his hay crop to an export broker this summer. After the broker’s tests revealed the alfalfa was genetically modified, Peila contacted the state Agriculture Department in late August.

The agency tested samples of Peila’s seed and crop, and found a low-level presence of a genetic trait called Round-Up Ready, meaning the plants were able to tolerate the well-known herbicide.

“There should have been no Round-Up Ready genetics at any level,” Peila said.

He has no idea how the Round-Up Ready seeds got mixed with other alfalfa seeds on his fields, he said.

“It’s a complete mystery,” he said.

Peila farms a total of 230 acres with his wife and seeks to export nearly all his alfalfa, which is used as animal feed. Although Round-Up Ready seed is legal in the U.S., it is not popular overseas and many brokers will not accept it for export, Peila said.

Although Peila’s alfalfa was rejected for export, the broker did accept the hay and it was likely rerouted to the domestic market, Peila said.

“Our goal is to have export-quality hay,” he said, because it brings good prices. “This is my whole livelihood.”

Alfalfa is a perennial crop, meaning the seeds are planted one time. A farmer can cut the hay for up to five years, with four cuttings per year, for as long as it produces acceptable yields, Peila said.

There were numerous cuttings of his crop that were not tested for genetic modification, he said.

“This hay has been growing for three years,” he said. “I’ve sold quite a bit of it.”

“That’s what is scary: You say you are growing one thing and find out you are not,” Peila said. “I have told my grower friends that I suggest you test everything going forward.”

Peila has not decided what to do about the 70 acres of alfalfa that are genetically contaminated.

“I’m still in talks about whether to keep it in the ground,” he said. “It’ll probably stay in the ground until spring of next year and I’ll just market it domestically.”

After finding positive results for genetic modification, the state Department of Agriculture referred the case to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Peila said he has heard nothing from the federal agency. Peila has contacted the Center for Food Safety, a consumer advocacy group.

The center has since filed a petition demanding the USDA conduct an investigation and take regulatory action.

“USDA has once again abandoned farmers,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney with CFS, in a news release. “USDA feigns concern for conventional and organic farmers, but in reality the department’s policies only promote the interests of biotechnology-pesticide companies.”

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.

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

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

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher has said 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.

But Peila said the brokers he works with do not want genetically modified alfalfa.

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