Forage firm tries to calm fears over GM low lignin alfalfa

Traits can be contained Reduced lignin alfalfa manipulates an internal gene

BROOKS, Alta. — Forage Genetics International plans to introduce genetically modified low lignin alfalfa in late 2015 or early 2016, says the company’s director of alfalfa seed production.


Jose Arias told the Alfalfa Seed Commission of Alberta April 1 that the low lignin trait will be stacked with the Roundup Ready trait already commercialized in the United States and approved for commercial release in Canada.


Roundup Ready alfalfa has been controversial since its commercial release because of worries about inadvertent spread of the gene to non-GM varieties.


FGI, which has exclusive rights to commercialize Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada, has delayed its introduction here for at least this year.


“The preliminary market poll shows that the stacked (variety) is going to be a bigger market than the individual product of reduced lignin,” Arias said in an interview after his speech to growers.


Low lignin alfalfa would allow forage growers to delay harvest until 40 to 50 percent bloom without loss of forage quality. It would increase yields of a forage that is a valuable livestock feed, particularly for dairy cows.


Arias said low lignin alfalfa would allow the forage to compete with corn as a dairy feed, with the added advantage of having a more palatable nutrient package.


Those opposed to GM alfalfa say prolonged blooming before harvest will increase the opportunity for gene spread by pollination.


The longer alfalfa stands in bloom, the more chance bees and other pollinators will visit the blossoms and spread GM pollen, they argue.


“With it being stacked, if that is true, we’re going to have the opportunity for cross contamination,” said Kurt Shmon, president of Imperial Seed Ltd. in Winnipeg.


“It’s much easier for it to cross pollinate with our feral alfalfa or any other alfalfa that’s in bloom.”


Shmon said GM alfalfa cannot be prevented from spreading, which was documented in the U.S. Pacific Northwest when the Roundup Ready trait was found in wild alfalfa.


“You can’t control the gene. Try to put toothpaste back into a tube. It doesn’t work. We’ve already seen it with canola,” said Shmon.


However, Arias said GM alfalfa traits can be contained.


“We’ve been working with Roundup Ready alfalfa in the States since 2005 and we have developed a very nice coexistence package within all the communities in the U.S.,” he said.


Shmon said Brooks area growers are getting more contract opportunities from American seed companies because Canadian seed is GM free and U.S. companies can’t meet customer demand for GM-free seed. European demand for Alberta alfalfa seed is also rising, he said.


Arias said there is considerable interest in Roundup Ready alfalfa, particularly in Eastern Canada where seed production is not an issue. Roundup Ready alfalfa made up 53 percent of FGI’s market for seed last year, an increase from 35 percent in 2012.


He said resistance to low lignin as a modification might be tempered by its method of development.


“The difference between reduced lignin and Roundup Ready is that reduced lignin is not a foreign gene,” he said.


“It’s a manipulation internally, from the insides of the plant, so we’re not taking a gene and putting it in. We’re just manipulating the switchboard in alfalfa.”

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