Alberta county asks farmers to keep GM alfalfa out

A county in Alberta’s Peace River region is asking farmers not to plant genetically modified alfalfa.

The matter is moot right now because Roundup Ready alfalfa is not available to growers in Western Canada.

However, HarvXtra, a GM variety with stacked Roundup Ready and low lignin traits, was offered on a limited basis in Eastern Canada last year and is more widely available this year, according to Forage Genetics International (FGI), which has the rights to the technology.

Availability in the east is limited to hay production.

However, several northern Alberta counties are pondering whether to establish a GM alfalfa-free zone if the seed is offered in the West.

In Saddle Hills County, north of Grande Prairie, the Agriculture Services Board posted a notice on its website asking farmers to choose another product.

“The worry is that the genetic modifications may not be able to be controlled and may cross breed with alfalfa being produced for the fine seed industry,” said the notice.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association estimates that Alberta’s Peace region produces about 27 percent of forage seed in the province and almost 18 percent of all forage seed produced in Western Canada.

Edward Armagost, chair of the Saddle Hills ASB, said the board is not against genetically modified crops but is uncertain of GM alfalfa’s potential effect on seed producers in the region.

“We’ve decided to go the education route,” said Armagost about the message to ratepayers.

“We don’t want to be against GMOs and we understand there’s concern, so education is the key. Our job is to protect agriculture in our county and across Alberta.”

Armagost said board members are undertaking a fact-finding mission to learn more about GM alfalfa, the possibility of cross-pollination and the level of international market acceptance.

He said Clear Hills County and the Municipal District of Spirit River are also considering the ramifications of GM alfalfa in their regions.

In a news release issued in Nov-ember 2016, FGI said its HarvXtra alfalfa will be available for sale and planting only in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland Labrador in 2017, and only for hay production.

“Forage Genetics International (FGI) has no plans to introduce seed production of (genetically engineered) alfalfa into eastern or western Canada at this time. FGI will not license any HarvXtra Alfalfa with Roundup Ready technology to be grown within Western Canada, nor will FGI allow any authorized dealer to sell seed for planting in Western Canada,” it said.

Eastern Canadian growers are obligated to sign technology-use agreements before planting the alfalfa. FGI said those agreements provide guidance on co-existence of the alfalfa with conventional and organic alfalfa crops.

“We will not make any decision to bring GE alfalfa traits (for hay production only) to Western Canada without broad agreement with key stakeholders,” FGI said in a statement attributed to Michael Peterson, the lead on global traits for the company.

In its notice, the Saddle Hills ASB said gene transfer from GM alfalfa to both tame and feral alfalfa is a concern. Though GM canola is commonly grown in the Peace Region, “the difference is that canola is an annual, is intensively managed and doesn’t cross contaminate.”

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