Roundup Ready alfalfa moves closer to fields

Seeking registration | Forage Genetics International says it isn’t ready to commercialize the crop just yet

Once (Roundup Ready alfalfa) is out, you can’t put it back in the can, especially when it’s open pollinated and can potentially grow wild.

Philip Woodhouse


Opponents of Roundup Ready alfalfa fear the crop will be commercialized in Canada this spring, but the crop breeder says it’s too early to say.

“We have heard that the industry wants to push ahead this year with Roundup Ready alfalfa,” said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

Mike Peterson, global traits lead for Forage Genetics International, the company with the rights to commercialize the controversial crop in Canada, said it’s premature to jump to that conclusion.

“FGI has not made a decision to commercialize yet,” he said.

“We have not announced simply because there’s some pieces that aren’t yet in place.”

A coexistence plan for Roundup Ready alfalfa hay production for dairy producers in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada is one of the key missing pieces. The region and sector will be Forage Genetics’ initial target.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA) is co-ordinating the development of that plan. It facilitated a workshop in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., last October to discuss a framework for coexistence between Roundup Ready alfalfa and non-genetically modified varieties in Eastern Canada.

CSTA chief executive officer Patty Townsend said the draft is complete and will be circulated to participants of the workshop within the next couple of weeks.

The association will collect comments and suggestions before posting the coexistence framework on its website.

In the meantime, the group is assembling a group of academics, forage specialists, hay producers and hay users to develop best management practices (BMPs) to be incorporated into the framework.

Once that is done, the completed plan will be widely distributed and posted to the CSTA’s website. Forage Genetics will be encouraged to include the BMPs as part of its commercialization plans.

The other missing piece is Forage Genetics’ registration of its Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. That won’t happen until the coexistence plan is complete. The registration process can take weeks or months.

Peterson said it’s possible all this could come together in time for a limited spring commercial release in Eastern Canada, but time is becoming an enemy and the company doesn’t want to rush the product to market.

The introduction of Roundup Ready alfalfa in the United States was met with strong opposition south of the border. The crop hit the market in 2005 but commercialization was derailed in 2007 by a legal challenge launched by the Center for Food Safety.

Sales of the crop resumed in early 2011 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture completed an environmental impact statement.

Peterson said the company learned lessons from the U.S. launch of the product.

“We really don’t want to piss anybody off. We’d rather go at a pace that gets the least number of stakeholders upset at the process,” he said.

Sharratt said Forage Genetics deserves a failing grade for the way it is approaching commercialization in Canada. She claims growers have been “left in the dark” about the company’s plans.

“This is too much uncertainty for farmers who see a lot at stake with the introduction of Roundup Ready alfalfa. It’s an intolerable situation for farmers who feel that they would see their business jeopardized or picture real damage to their sector,” she said.

The CSTA did include representatives from the organic industry and the alfalfa seed sector in its October workshop.

Phillip Woodhouse, president of the National Farmers Union’s Grey County Local 344, attended the meeting.

He has a problem with a key element of the coexistence plan, which is for farmers to cut their Roundup Ready alfalfa hay crop before it reaches the budding stage of development to prevent cross-pollination.

Woodhouse said the plan is not foolproof.

“We have concerns around that, especially in Ontario because at the bud stage is pretty well the last week of May and the weather can be pretty touchy,” said the organic beef and cash crop farmer from Ontario’s Beaver Valley area.

“You get a week of wet weather and the alfalfa has already gone to 25 percent bloom.”

However, Peterson said there is a big difference between pollen drift and seed production.

“It takes basically desert-like conditions and about 75 days from when that pollen is introduced into a plant before there’s a viable seed,” he said.

A neighbouring conventional or organic crop would be harvested before that happens.

Peterson said a coexistence plan won’t eliminate all cases of contamination, but it will keep them below “the market threshold.”

There have been contamination incidents in the U.S. involving both alfalfa seed production and alfalfa hay exports, but the numbers are extremely low.

“It’s really a rounding error to zero when you look at the number of pounds and the number of acres that are out there.”

Roundup Ready varieties comprise 20 to 25 percent of total U.S. alfalfa acres.

He said the important thing to remember is how the trait developer and crop breeder have responded when there has been an incident.

“One hundred percent of the issues have been satisfactorily resolved very quickly. It’s an extremely safe technology.”

Lisa Mumm of Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds, a Saskatchewan grower and supplier of organic alfalfa seed for sprouts and micro-greens, said the discussion shouldn’t be about an acceptable level of contamination.

“That’s a pretty frightening place to start any conversation,” she said.

Mumm said FGI’s proposed isolation distances are based on flawed observations about how plentiful leaf cutter bees are in fields and how far they travel.

She said preliminary findings of a USDA study on feral alfalfa found volunteer Roundup Ready alfalfa growing in ditches in 15 percent of the sites used in the study.

Most of it was found near Roundup Ready seed production areas, but some was located elsewhere, suggesting that hay crops can be a source of the contamination.

Peterson said there are no immediate plans to commercialize the crop in Western Canada.

“That’s down the road a ways,” he said.

“When you go west in Western Canada, there is a significant number of coexistence concerns because there’s alfalfa seed production out there.”

Launching the product in Western Canada would require a more extensive coexistence plan, such as what exists in the U.S., where one county in a state will be designated for Roundup Ready alfalfa seed production and a neighbouring county for conventional alfalfa seed production.

Woodhouse doesn’t believe the isolation distances proposed in the Canadian hay coexistence plan will protect the western Canadian alfalfa seed production industry.

“Once (Roundup Ready alfalfa) is out, you can’t put it back in the can, especially when it’s open pollinated and can potentially grow wild.”

The seed industry ships a lot of its product to the European Union, and Woodhouse has witnessed what happens when one GM flax seed is found in a sample of 10,000 seeds. The Triffid contamination incident destroyed the EU market for Canadian flax.

“(Forage Genetics) is not planning on releasing it in Western Canada, but there is no border checkpoint between Manitoba and Ontario,” said Woodhouse.