The 2015 Round Up Ready Alfalfa Disaster

Today I have come across another interesting piece from Ecowatch. A piece about the lie of coexistence of both GMO and NON GMO varieties of Alfalfa due to major problems getting the stuff to market (being that much of it was rejected by Chinese authorities due to GMO gene contamination).

A recent study by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists shows that genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa has gone wild, in a big way, in alfalfa-growing parts of the West. This feral GE alfalfa may help explain a number of transgenic contamination episodes over the past few years that have cost American alfalfa growers and exporters millions of dollars in lost revenue. And it also exposes the failure of USDA’s “coexistence” policy for GE and traditional crops.

The USDA has long maintained that GE crops can co-exist with traditional and organic agriculture. According to this “co-existence” narrative, if neighboring GE and traditional farmers just sort things out among themselves and follow “best management practices,” transgenes will be confined to GE crops and the fields where they are planted.

The latest evidence refuting USDA’s co-existence fairytale comes from a recently published study by a team of USDA scientists. The study involvedMonsanto′s Roundup Ready alfalfa, which, like most GE crops in the U.S. is engineered to survive direct spraying with Roundup, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide.

In 2011 and 2012, USDA Scientist Stephanie Greene and her team scouted the roadsides of three important alfalfa-growing areas—in California, Idaho and Washington—for feral (wild) alfalfa stands. Because alfalfa is a hardy perennial plant, it readily forms self-sustaining feral populations that persist for years wherever the crop is grown.

Greene and colleagues found 404 feral alfalfa populations on roadsides. Testing revealed that over one-quarter (27 percent) of them contained transgenic alfalfa—that is, plants that tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene. They believe that most of these feral populations likely grew from seeds spilled during alfalfa production or transport.

However, the researchers also found clear evidence that the Roundup Ready gene was being spread by bees, which are known to cross-pollinate alfalfa populations separated by up to several miles. Their results suggested that “transgenic plants could spread transgenes to neighboring feral plants and potentially to neighboring non-GE fields.” While they did not test this latter possibility, there is no doubt that non-GE alfalfa has in fact been transgenically contaminated—not just once, but on many occasions.

First off, though not directly related, we have this article from Forbes.

Gives you a bit of background on some other legal struggles that the Alfalfa (and sugar beat, as it turns out) industries have been dealing with due to hysterical anti-GMO bullshit. Which only makes this disaster of trading the icing on the cake.

As for contamination:

The amount of GMO contamination that might be present in conventional alfalfa is not known. But a December 2011 report by Stephanie Greene, a geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, ARS, said that after Roundup Ready alfalfa was first deregulated in 2005 industry testing of conventional seed lots found levels of contamination as high as 2 percent.

It is possible I am misreading the numbers presented by both sources (Ecowatch and Reuters). Its possible that the 2% and the 27% figures are results of an entirely different set of data all together, or some other variable. But if they are representative of the same study, there is a HUGE variation. A mere sprinkle, verses a very large figure.

I will now move onto the most interesting part of the article, the 2015 Alfalfa Disaster. Apparently alfalfa farmers of all types (including those of NON GMO varieties) had a lot of issues selling to China and other Asian nations due to genetic contamination. Though the farmers utilized either organic or traditional methods of production, genetically modified genes were still detected in many of the batches, thus causing them to be rejected.
In the case of a Washington farmer, it is suspected that a mislabeled bag of seed may have caused the mess.
It happens. When you work retail, you would be surprised how often competitor (or just wrong items in general) arrive in mislabeled boxes. I suspect such a shipping error has cost me over $700 due to a smartphone of another carrier (than my current one) mistakenly arriving to their programming center. Though proper procedure is to remove the device from carriers system and send it to the correct carrier, I suspect someone got lazy and reprogrammed it to work on the current network. Thus (I STRONGLY suspect) voiding the warrantee before the device even enters a carrier store.

But getting back to the piece, either a labeling error or more stringent (and new) testing methods are suspected of causing the 2015 headache.

Then in September of 2013, a Washington state farmer’s conventional alfalfa crop was rejected by export buyers when it was found to contain Roundup Ready DNA. To GE critics, this was the inevitable consequence of allowing RR alfalfa to be grown alongside conventional alfalfa. Unlike corn, soybean and other GMO crops, alfalfa is a perennial that is bee pollinated. It was assumed that gene drift, the transfer of pollen to conventional plants resulting in seed with GE traits, would be much more likely than in alfalfa than annual crops.  In 2011, Anastasia Bodnar explained in detail why alfalfa is different than annual cropsand how conventional and genetically engineered alfalfa can coexist atBiology Fortified. James McWilliams even covered it in The Atlantic. So how did this happen?

After an investigation, it is likely that this farmer simply got a bag of mislabeled seed, but fear of further rejection prompted calls for more stringent regulations. Traditionally, farmers have used strip tests to check for GE DNA with a threshold of 2-5 percent, but now there are extremely sensitive tests that allow detection at levels of 0.1 percent. This amount can be caused simply by pollen from a GE crop blowing on to conventional hay or genetic material from processing conventional and GE hay in the same machines, even if the crop is 100 percent conventional alfalfa. The USDA chose not to interfere, calling it a commercial issue not warranting government intervention.

So when last summer China began testing alfalfa shipment with the more sensitive test, many were rejected due to the presence of extremely small amounts of unapproved strains in shipments. Containers of alfalfa sat in port rotting before they could be resold. In December, published remarks by President Xi Jinping were taken as a ban of hay imports from the U.S. as China also began rejecting corn shipments they claimed contained unapproved GE strains, even as they approved a new corn variety from Monsanto this January.

Here is the statement of Xi Jinping, Chinese president.

When we talk about the quality and safety of agricultural products, there’s one question that must be mentioned, which is the GMO question,” the president said. “GMO is a new technology, but also a new industry, and has broad prospects for development. As a new item, society has debates and doubts on GMO techniques, which is normal. On this issue, I have to emphasize two points: First is to ensure safety, second is to innovate by ourselves. Which is to say, we must be bold in studying it, [but] be cautious in promoting it. Industrial production of GMOs and commercialization must be strictly in accordance with the nation’s specified rules and techniques, moving steadily, ensuring no mishaps, taking into account safety factors. [We] must boldly research and innovate, dominate the high points of GMO techniques, and [we] cannot let foreign companies dominate the GMO market.

Quite a reasonable stance to be taking on the issue. Not allowing the giants of the industry to pave the way, yet also allowing the research and technology to develop. A stance that is further reenforced by the nations spending on genetic modification research (#1 in the world, though much of the data is kept confidential).

So it appears here that we have (again) a case of the hysterical demanding that the baby be thrown away with the bathwater. Due to a seemingly small issue.

None the less, this is an unfortunate problem for an industry that has already taken a shit kicking from the very people that are gloating about foreseeing this problem now. It brings about a question of, how does one prevent this cross contamination (WITHOUT the total bans that Big Organic wants)?
Or a better question may be, where is the line between acceptable caution and ridiculousness?

Finding 2% or so of genetically modified matter in a clean batch is acceptable for rejection. Its technically not what was specified.

But 0.1%? Trace amounts?

Health Canada, the USDA and other entities have less stringent regulations for some genuinely hazardous chemicals when it comes to food and water for human consumption. Were talking proteins that more than likely are inactive to the human digestive system, IN TRACE ANOUNTS. Not DDT or PCB’s.

To the credit of China however, their GMO policies seem a lot more progressive than those of virtually all European nations, the United States and many other nations (including many Eurasian nations).

But none the less, its beyond ridiculous to waste TONS of perfectly safe food (and cause stress for THOUSANDS of innocent farmers) over traces.

Rice is known to often times have MEASURABLE amounts of arsenic. To the point where it is recommended to severely limit the intake of rice and processed rice foods for children. Because very little (particularly for processed foods) can put them at (or above) the recommended limit.

Though I am not 100% sure how the arsenic content of rice and rice based foods compares to the amount of genetically modified genes that constitutes 0.1% of an alfalfa shipment, im almost certain that were talking more then traces. Just by the measurements.

An entire shipping container, verses a bowl of cereal, a few rice cakes or a quart of rice milk.

As always, context is everything.

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