Roundup Ready alfalfa has downside for exports

Roundup Ready alfalfa could have significant benefits for the Canadian forage industry, says a report commissioned by the industry.

However, the genetically modified crop could also create problems for the organic, seed and forage export industries, it added.

The report, commissioned by the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association in partnership with the Saskatchewan Forage Council, was not intended to take a stand on the controversial issue. Rather, it was designed to set out the facts and let the decision makers decide if Roundup Ready alfalfa would be a benefit or a disaster for the Canadian industry.

“The introduction of RRA, and subsequent GE alfalfa traits, into Canada could have a negative impact on certain export seed, forage, honey and the entire organic industry. RRA would give forage producers a new and effective weed control system,” wrote Doug Yungblut, the report’s author.

“Some people are making it out to be a potential disaster. I’m not sure. They may be overstating it, but it could be potentially negative for some people.”

Canada has more than 27 million acres of improved pasture and seed production. Organic pasture and seed production accounts for two percent of the cultivated forage acres, but they could be hit the hardest if Roundup Ready alfalfa is introduced to Canada.

Canada exports more than $130 million in forage products and $100 million in forage seeds annually. The United States and Japan are the major customers and the European Union is a significant customer for forage seed.

Canada has granted regulatory clearance for cultivation and production of Roundup Ready alfalfa, although no varieties are licensed for sale in Canada.

In the U.S., Roundup Ready alfalfa is back on the market after a judge ruled the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not conducted an appropriate environmental assessment in 2006.

In his report, Yungblut said a survey of American growers found 91 percent satisfaction with the alfalfa, especially with increased weed control.

The fight is not over in the U.S. Environmental groups have launched legal action against Monsanto, partly in response to the introduction of the GM alfalfa.

Half of Canadian forage exports, mostly timothy, are shipped to Japan, and shouldn’t be affected by the introduction of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Japanese authorities have approved the Roundup Ready technology, although customers say they don’t want to import it.

The EU is a significant customer of forage seed and has a zero tolerance for non-approved GM seed.

The growing Chinese and Middle East markets have not expressed concern over GM technology.

The biggest concern for the seed industry if GM alfalfa was approved is the EU’s zero tolerance of GM seed. Canadian seed growers are worried about contamination of seed supplies, cross contamination of seed and hard seeds, which germinate after several years dormancy in the field.

“This is the major concern for the seed industry since the EU has a zero tolerance for non approved GE seed,” wrote Yungblut.

The presence of a non-EU approved GM gene in Canadian flax caused a major disruption in flax markets and could cause similar problems with alfalfa seed sales.

“The real potential loser is the seed producer exporting seed to Europe,” said Yungblut.

“The cold hard, cold brutal truth is, yes it’s a small part of industry but you can’t ignore them,” he said.

More than half the alfalfa in Canada is used in a grass- alfalfa hay mixture in which Roundup Ready alfalfa could not easily be used because Roundup would kill the grass in the hay mixture. Yungblut said farmer ingenuity could overcome those issues by seeding alfalfa first, spraying the crop for weed control and then top dressing it with grass seed.

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