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2-Plants: Roundup Ready alfalfa worries growers



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TITLE:  Roundup Ready alfalfa worries growers
SOURCE: Tri-City Herald, USA, by Anna King
        http://www.tri-cityherald.com/tch/local/story/6782825p-6672051c.html
DATE:   5 Aug 2005

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Roundup Ready alfalfa worries growers

Alfalfa growers in the Mid-Columbia 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.

Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics, said his company did
compensate Ford for travel expenses but that he worked only as a liaison
between the companies and Washington hay exporters to set up meetings.
Gauntt said he's mainly concerned with what Ford may have shared from
confidential discussions among association members about Monsanto and
Forage Genetics. This week, the association issued a statement asking
Monsanto to delay its seed release in Washington for another year.

"He comes and listens as we are very candid," Gauntt said. "He is
listening and bringing that back to Monsanto. He's capitalized on that in
the form of money."

But Gauntt said the association has no formal policy about disclosure of
directors' compensation from companies.

"I had no idea that it was this deep," he said. "We're businessmen and
we're not naive, but maybe in a way we have been."

Brent Evans, international sales manager for Eckenberg Farms of Mattawa,
said he's not worried about Roundup Ready alfalfa as a product, but he is
extremely concerned about the Japanese perception.

Evans lived in Japan for about six years and said consumers and farmers
there are very health-conscious and will ban anything they view as
contaminated or dangerous.

In 1995, he worked for the Washington State Apple Commission in Japan
when the Japanese shut down imports of all Washington apples after a
chemical residue was discovered on less than 1 percent of the fruit.

"It's an underlying fear that we are messing with nature," he said. Evans
said Eckenberg Farms ships about 5,000 shipping containers of alfalfa to
Japan each year.

That exported hay is the most expensive sold in Washington, he said, and
a disruption in that market would have dismal effect on hay prices in the
Northwest.

Evans said his company would like the product better if the companies
would help the growers educate their consumers in Japan.

He said that might take an additional year or two.

But make a wrong move, and it could take years to resolve, he said.

"If you think they won't stop alfalfa from Washington State, all you have
to do is to look at beef," Evans said, referring to the trade embargo on
U.S. beef after mad cow disease was discovered in a slaughtered Mabton
cow. "They can't get the Japanese to budge."




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