Industry, not governmentmust decide on GM alfalfa

Most producers probably wouldn’t notice much difference in the short term if genetically modified alfalfa is grown in Eastern Canada.


Most use alfalfa to feed cattle on their own farms. The danger of market loss is not a direct concern.


However, that doesn’t mean we can afford to overlook the potential problems. We need to assess the risks and weigh the possible rewards.


On the risk side, alfalfa is grown on almost 30 percent of cropland in Canada. The perennial is used mainly for feed and in crop rotations to improve soil fertility. Organic growers find it particularly useful for its ability to return nitrogen to the soil, while enabling them to avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers. 


Organic growers would be forced to give it up if Roundup Ready alfalfa escaped into the broader environment, which is almost inevitable given enough time.


As well, some producers, particularly in the West, grow alfalfa seed or produce compressed hay or pellets for export. Those markets could be adversely affected by the release and unintentional spread of GM varieties.


So are the rewards worth this? That’s something best left for growers themselves to answer, and their opinion appears to be a resounding “no.”


Unlike the introductions of GM soybeans, canola and corn, which were widely accepted by their respective industries, few in the alfalfa industry are backing the plan for release of this crop.


Forage Genetics International plans to release GM alfalfa only in Eastern Canada. It has already been approved for use by the federal government and is also approved in the United States.


A plan is in place to institute proper management practices to minimize the risk of the GM crop spreading to unwanted areas, but spread is generally considered to be inevitable over time.


The reward side of the equation does not yet show enough gains to compensate for these risks.


If it were to be decided based purely on science, as is rightfully the preferred method for making these decisions, then GM alfalfa is good to go. There is no strong evidence that GM products are harmful despite being in use for almost 20 years.


However, the alfalfa case is more akin to the debates over GM wheat that occurred a few years ago. While no GM wheat has ever been commercialized, the wheat industry immediately protested when discussions started about GM varieties, fearing a loss of markets by buyers in foreign countries whose consumers aren’t accepting of GM technology. 


And if the industry itself sees no major benefit, then why continue? In wheat’s case, life science companies backed off.


In normal circumstances, it would be a matter of letting the market decide. If growers don’t want it, then they won’t buy it. But this particular genie could have wide-reaching effects if let out of the bottle. That’s why it must have wide reaching approval before doing so.


Conventional alfalfa is already a strong competitor against weeds, and the ability to spray it with glyphosate is not a normal practice, but there may be yield gains in doing so. However, that benefit may not be enough.


Future GM alfalfa varieties may have something more to offer, such as low lignin types that aid digestibility and tannin alfalfa that has more efficient protein use and is low or non-bloating. Each should be evaluated on its own merits.


For now, though, it is not the place of government to step in with regulations. An ill-advised attempt to introduce a market acceptance test for new varieties was rejected by Parliament last year. Government approval or rejection of new varieties must continue to be based on science.


The industry itself must take the lead and send a loud and clear message about the direction it wants to take. If farmers are against it, the rest of the industry should respect those wishes.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.