GM alfalfa opponents say spread inevitable

Report outlines factors that would encourage spread | Seed trade association is developing coexistence strategies

A report released last week by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network states its position in the title: The Inevitability of Contamination from GM Alfalfa Release in Ontario.

Roundup Ready alfalfa has been approved for release in Canada, and U.S. based Forage Genetics International has the commercialization rights. It has applied for Canadian registration, and that process is now underway.

If approved, the company has said it intends to sell Roundup Ready alfalfa only in Eastern Canada for use as hay.

CBAN co-ordinator Lucy Sharratt said the network’s report itemizes the ways RR alfalfa could contaminate all alfalfa in Canada.

“We hope the report is a substantial contribution to this question of what does it mean if GM alfalfa is introduced,” she said.

“We think it’s the definitive word on this question of contamination, although farmers already have said contamination will happen. It’s not in question. But we’ve put the details down together in this one paper.”

An analysis of RR alfalfa and its potential effects on production was also recently posted on the Canadian Seed Trade Association website.

A Coexistence Plan for Alfalfa Hay in Eastern Canada is intended to identify practices that will allow all alfalfa hay production systems, including RR alfalfa, to be used in Eastern Canada.

CSTA executive director Patty Townsend said the plan is a framework for alfalfa hay production experts to use in developing best management practices if and when RR alfalfa is registered.

“With the pace of technology now, we have to do something to ensure that farmers that don’t want to use that technology can still produce with the systems they want to produce in, and so we have to give it our best shot to develop coexistence plans,” Townsend said.

“This is only for alfalfa hay in Eastern Canada. The company (FGI) has said they have no intention to commercialize for seed anywhere in Canada or for anything in Western Canada.”

Mike Peterson, global traits lead for FGI, confirmed the company’s intentions April 8.

“Our initial intent is to sell only in Ontario east because that’s the only part of the country where we will have a coexistence plan in place,” he said.

Townsend said a panel of forage experts will soon develop a list of best management practices that will form part of that coexistence plan.

However, CBAN contends that spread of the RR trait is inevitable given the perennial’s outcrossing abilities.

Its report said the trait could be spread by seed escape, by bees and other pollinators and through volunteer and feral alfalfa.

Seed spillage and traces left in farm equipment could result in spread, the report said. As well, a percentage of alfalfa seed can stay dormant for years and then germinate, possibly within non-GM forage crops.

Leafcutter bees and honeybees could also spread pollen to non-GM varieties.

“Leafcutter bees forage up to 1,000 metres from their nests, and may travel even further over time,” said the report.

“It is impossible to fully control the forage patterns of pollinators or the bloom timings of a forage stand.”

The report was released a week before April 9 protests against RR alfalfa were to be held outside more than 35 MP offices across the country.

“Everyone knows this is what the outcome of releasing GM alfalfa in Eastern Canada will be. It will be contamination in farmers’ fields,” Sharratt said.

“So then the question is, what are the economic consequences of that and how can we stop GM alfalfa? Who will stop GM alfalfa?”

She said a mechanism is needed in Canada to evaluate the economic risks and benefits of GM crops, which would include farmer consultation.

The CSTA-initiated report details hay production in Canada, current markets and alfalfa biology. In a list of “principles of coexistence,” the first one is “to provide producers with freedom of choice and opportunity to pursue diverse markets.”

A list of measures to mitigate low-level presence of GM traits in Eastern Canadian hay production lists some of the same transmission modes noted in the CBAN report.

Measures include:

  • Using certified seed.
  • Cleaning planting equipment.
  • Testing seed before planting.
  • Considering GPS tracking.
  • Controlling flowering alfalfa on field edges and ditches.
  • Treating volunteers as weeds in subsequent crops.
  • Rotating with non-alfalfa crops.
  • Labelling hay lots.
  • Physically separating hay lots for transportation and storage.

Peterson said it is unlikely RR alfalfa will be available for sale this year, and there are no plans for future sales in Western Canada.

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