By Aviva Shen
Late last month, an export shipment of alfalfa from Washington state was rejected after testing positive for a genetically modified (GM) trait patented by biotech company Monsanto. After a week of testing, state agricultural officials confirmed Friday that the alfalfa did have low-level contamination. This is the second time accidental GM contamination has sabotaged farm exports in the past few months.
Many countries have strict bans on GM crops, and screen meticulously for even trace amounts of contamination. In May, major buyers Japan and South Korea refused or cancelled American wheat shipments after the discovery of unapproved Monsanto wheat contamination. Monsanto was soon flooded with lawsuits from farmers whose crops suffered from cancelled exports and falling prices.
It’s no surprise that alfalfa has also become vulnerable to GM contamination; in fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted this problem two years ago. Because alfalfa is a perennial crop pollinated by bees, USDA head Tom Vilsack briefly contemplated restricting where GM alfalfa could be grown in order to protect organic and conventional crops from inevitable GMO pollen drift. Vilsack called for a policy of “coexistence” to protect the interest of both GMO and non-GMO farmers.
However, pressured by both Monsanto and the White House, the USDA abruptly approved Monsanto’s alfalfa in 2011 with no restrictions whatsoever. The agency also seems to have abandoned the idea of “coexistence,” telling non-GM farmers they should simply buy insurance to protect against contamination-related losses.
Meanwhile, Monsanto cannot be held liable for contamination and, thanks to the infamous “Monsanto Protection Act,” is even outside the reach of environmental law. Monsanto argues that contamination is very limited, and even claimed that the wheat scandal was “sabotage” by anti-GMO activists.
As the alfalfa and wheat debacles show, the risk for non-GM farmers is anything but hypothetical. According to one recent study of non-GM crops in the U.S., 50 percent of conventional corn seed, 50 percent of soy, and 83 percent of canola is actually contaminated with GM material.
Leaving aside the financial losses, a group of organic and conventional farmers are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to protect them from Monsanto’s notoriously aggressive patent enforcement. The biotech giant’s formidable team of investigators ferrets out farmers who use seeds containing their GM trait without paying royalties. So far, Monsanto has pursued more than 800 patent infringement cases. Given the ease with which GM crops spread, farmers worry they could be bankrupted by lawsuits forcing them to prove that they did not intentionally use Monsanto’s technology. A federal appeals court ruled for Monsanto in June, provided that the company abide by a legally binding promise not to sue farmers whose crops were accidentally contaminated.
The USDA will now have to decide whether or not to take action over the alfalfa contamination. A USDA spokesperson told Reuters they could simply let the market reject any contaminated shipments — essentially leaving non-GM farmers to pick up the pieces.