Alfalfa seed growers in Alberta could stand to gain a huge market advantage over their neighbours to the south — if the industry can keep GM alfalfa out of Western Canada.
“We’ve got access to potential market gains by picking up markets that are possibly going to be lost in the States,” said Heather Kerschbaumer, a Fairview-area seed grower and president of Forage Seed Canada.
“The longer we can keep it out, the more of an advantage we’re going to have for marketing.”
Alfalfa is the fourth-largest crop, in acreage and value, in the U.S., but contamination from genetically engineered crops in “supposedly GE-free zones” in California and Washington are raising red flags with Europe, China and other buyers.
“In China, zero means zero,” Kerschbaumer said at the Alberta Forage Industry Network AGM in mid-March.
“They have no tolerance. It doesn’t matter if you can test it down to one-one-thousandth of a per cent. If they find any kind of a trace, it’s not acceptable.”
She has also seen first hand how GM contamination can affect forage seed markets.
Last month, she lost a 16,000-pound sale of yellow blossom sweet clover to northern Europe because some GM canola seeds were found in the shipment, even though it was certified organic. The farmer who grew the seed says he hasn’t grown canola for 15 years, Kerschbaumer said.
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This wasn’t her first lost sale due to GM contamination. A 40,000-pound shipment of timothy seed destined for Japan was lost after one canola seed was found in a 25-gram sample collected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The seed cut the shipment’s value in half, from $1 a pound to just 50 cents.
“So we lost $20,000 just from one canola seed,” she said.
Collectively, American hay exporters are facing huge losses. The potential market losses of hay exports to China alone could reach up to $20 billion, she said.
“Canada could pick up on some of these markets that they’re losing,” said Kerschbaumer. “There’s big potential.”
But it all depends on keeping GM alfalfa out of Western Canada.
“In Canada, we have it coming into the East, but we’re wondering about the West,” she said.
“It’s probably never going to be completely stopped, but we’re wondering if it could be slowed down.”
Five Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties were approved for Canada in 2013 and were set to hit shelves in Eastern Canada last spring. Monsanto and marketer Forage Genetics International held off due to “push-back” from the industry, but almost a dozen test plots were planted in Ontario and Quebec last year, with more to come this year.
That’s a problem for growers in Western Canada, where the risk of contamination is greater, said Kerschbaumer.
The forage seed industry is looking to have Western Canada designated as a “GE-free zone” where clean seed can be produced.
“Seed companies are already starting to move seed production out of the U.S. up into Canada because they need clean seed stocks, even for their own varieties that they’re trying to market into Europe. They still need to have a safe area.”
Kerschbaumer said she suspects that’s partly why Canada grew 5,300 more acres of certified alfalfa seed in 2014 compared to 2013.
The plan has some precedent, she said. In 2011, Monsanto and Forage Genetics International agreed not to commercialize Roundup Ready alfalfa in California’s Imperial Valley, the largest exporter of hay in the U.S.
And as seed suppliers for the hay industry, the forage seed industry could make a strong argument to keep GM alfalfa out of Western Canada.
“We have everyone on our shoulders,” said Kerschbaumer. “If we don’t have clean seed, we’re not going to have clean hay.”
She said she’s not personally opposed to GM technology, but what matters is that customers in China, Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, and South America are.
Those markets will be lost forever once Roundup Ready alfalfa is grown in Western Canada, she added.
“It’s not something we can get back,” Kerschbaumer said. “If we decide in five years that’s all OK, I’m OK with that. I’m not against it either, except I think they should slow down and make sure it’s not going to hurt us.”