Ag groups demand end to GM alfalfa approval

The seed trade industry’s co-existance plan requires GM alfalfa to be cut before bloom to prevent contamination, which organic growers say is contrary to the variety’s low-lignin trait that promotes harvesting at the 50 percent flowering stage.  |  Getty photo

LA GLACE, Alta. — Fourteen Canadian agriculture organizations want the federal government to cancel registration of genetically modified alfalfa and test all imports of U.S.-grown alfalfa seed.

They also want the locations of all GM alfalfa fields made public “so farmers can protect their fields and crops until all GM alfalfa varieties are taken off the market.”

The 14 groups, most of them organic grower associations but also the National Farmers Union and Quebec’s largest farm group, say GM alfalfa will spread to all varieties in Canada, eliminating organic certification and harming international markets for seed and organic feed and ingredients.

Peter Eggers, an organic farmer and member of the NFU, said GM traits in alfalfa, which include glyphosate tolerance and low lignin, are not needed by the industry, and co-existence protocols developed by the Canadian Seed Trade Association will not be effective.

“The co-existence plan they have in Eastern Canada requires them to cut it (before bloom) so it does not get out and pollute other sources of alfalfa, but yet when you have this low lignin, one of the supposed advantages is that you can cut it later, so the danger that it actually starts to flower and produce seed is greater,” said Eggers.

Forage Genetics International, which holds the rights to GM alfalfa, has marketed the product in Eastern Canada but said in a January statement that it had no plans to sell the seed for hay and forage in the West.

“FGI will not license any Harv-Xtra 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.

“Through dialogue and consultation with farmers, seed producers, seed marketers and other interested stakeholders, FGI has and will continue to clearly communicate that we will not make any decision to bring GE alfalfa traits (for hay production only) to Western Canada without broad agreement with key stakeholders.”

That cuts little ice with Eggers or with Peter Lundgard, an organic grower near Berwyn, Alta.

Lundgard said research indicates GM alfalfa has spread in fields and ditches in the United States so will eventually move into Western Canada.

“Alfalfa is a perennial and once you get a perennial into the ecosystem, it’s pretty hard to go back. That’s our biggest fear,” said Lundgard. “The pollen is transferred with insects. They say that you can have co-existence. No you can’t. It’s im-possible. Anybody that could even think that you could have co-exist-ence of a perennial legume doesn’t know much about agronomy.”

Loss of markets looms large in his mind if GM alfalfa spreads.

“There won’t be markets for fescue, brome, clovers. I don’t know why people would give that up,” he said.

“I just don’t understand it. We’ve talked to all the governments and they don’t understand it.…They do nothing. Zero. Nothing. Talk, talk, talk. No action.”

In a June 16 letter to federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, the groups objecting to GM alfalfa said they asked for government action in April 2016 but none has been taken.

“The farming industry is already at risk from U.S. alfalfa seed imports,” the letter said.

“The release this spring on a larger scale in Eastern Canada exacerbates that risk.”

It also repeated Eggers’ criticism of the co-existence plan, saying FGI’s marketing undermines the plan established for eastern Canadian hay and forage growers.

“Since the eastern plan was published, FGI has added the GM low-lignin trait to its glyphosate-tolerant GM varieties. This trait permits — and promotes — harvesting hay up to the 50 percent flower bloom stage, much later than the co-existence plan’s recommended maximum 10 percent for reducing risk of GM contamination by pollination,” said the letter to MacAulay.

“GM alfalfa sellers are now telling farmers that three cuts are optimum instead of the CSTA’s co-existence guidelines’ recommended four. Before the season began, the co-existence guidelines were already being undermined by the very seed dealers charged with communicating the co-existence best management practices to their customers. This ought to be a clear indication that the guidelines are both meaningless and inadequate.”

Efforts are underway to declare Alberta’s Peace region a GM-alfalfa free zone, and several rural municipalities in that region have stated support for the concept.

Danny Limoges, board member for the Peace Region Forage Seed Association, said the effort is not a fight against GM technology.

“We are not opposed to GM technology overall,” he said in the NFU news release, “but we are very concerned about the market impacts that GM alfalfa would have on alfalfa seed growers and the whole forage seed business, as it only takes one GMO alfalfa seed for any forage seed shipment to be rejected by an overseas buyer.”

Eggers and Lundgard said they are aware of the GM-free Peace initiative but fear GM alfalfa will spread regardless of those efforts because of its presence in the U.S. and the porosity of the international border.

On June 21, FGI posted on its website benefits that forage growers can derive from Roundup Ready alfalfa.

It said the varieties improve weed control and allow growers to easily spray out cover crops once a new alfalfa stand is established. It also allows for better stand establishment by controlling weed competition and allows for fall spraying to control winter annuals, the company said.

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