Roundup Ready alfalfa worries growers

By Anna King, Herald staff writer

August 5, 2005, TriCityHerald via 2005, Alfalfa growers in Mid-Columbia, Washington say they aren't ready to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa because they're worried that if they do their export markets in Japan could ban Washington hay.

The genetically modified plants have a resistance to the weed killer Roundup, enabling farmers to spray fields for weeds without killing the crop. However, the perception, growers say, is that the product is unnatural and could affect milk and people.

Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, which jointly produce the product, received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for the hay in July and have started selling the seed in every state but Washington. The companies are poised to release the seed in the state as early as spring 2006, and the first crop could be cut and baled that summer.

But those in Washington who export high-value hay say their customers in Japan don't want the alfalfa in their dairy feed troughs.

Columbia Basin growers export about $140 million in alfalfa to Japan a year. And hay is the largest export by volume in the Pacific Northwest, shipped out of the ports of Tacoma, Seattle, Portland and Oakland, Calif.

"There is no possible way that the Japanese customer will accept it," said Chep Gauntt, president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association and a Burbank-area hay grower. "We stand the chance of losing all of our export market."

However, Monsanto spokeswoman Jennifer Garrett said the company expects the Japanese government to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa by the end of the year.

But Gauntt said even with government approval, if the Japanese dairymen don't like the product, they won't import it or allow it in shipments. And that means big-money losses for the Mid-Columbia hay exporters.

Talks between Monsanto, Forage Genetics and the hay association have been going on for a few years. But with the date of the seed release edging forward, the situation is becoming increasingly tense.

This week, Gauntt said he learned that a longtime member of the association's board of directors, William "Bill" Ford, is being paid by Monsanto, which raises ethics concerns.

Ford is a retired Washington State University agronomist who worked out of the Pasco extension office for about 34 years. He helped test new alfalfa varieties in the area and has worked extensively with area growers and exporters.

"He's had the trust of everyone, and no one even questioned it," Gauntt said.

Ford said he's been working as a consultant for the company for about two or three years and didn't see it as a conflict of interest because he has never voted on the subject at association meetings.

"All I did was to work with them and put them in contact with the major exporters here in Washington," he said.

Ford and the companies declined to discuss how much he had been paid.

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