Genetically modified alfalfa has somehow made its way into Alberta — raising fears that western Canadian forage seed growers and hay exporters could be shut out of markets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Alberta Farmer recently learned that a batch of foundation seed contaminated with Roundup Ready alfalfa was sent to a forage seed grower in southern Alberta four years ago. And that almost certainly means the hugely controversial GM variety is present in the province, said the grower.
“I should have made a big scene, but I didn’t want to and it’s four years later,” said the grower, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Although this is the only confirmed case, the contamination was only discovered by accident and more farms likely grew GM alfalfa and never realized it, he said.
“It’s in the system — if it’s in one, it’s in more than one,” he said. “I should have been more vocal right at the start.”
If so, it could be the start of the nightmare scenario long feared by many forage growers in Western Canada, which accounts for nearly all of the country’s 327,000 acres of forage seed. (Alberta has 40 per cent of those acres.) Canada exports $280 million of forage seed annually and another $100 million worth of alfalfa and timothy hay, meal, and pellets.
But most of the world’s major buyers — including Europe, China, Japan, and the Middle East — have a zero-GM tolerance policy for both forage seed and hay, and test on a parts-per-million level.
Although the southern Alberta grower took extensive measures to wipe out the GM alfalfa on his farm, any other growers who received other batches of the contaminated foundation seed would not have known it was present. And if allowed to flower, its transgenic traits could be easily spread, said Heather Kerschbaumer, a forage seed grower from Fairview and president of Forage Seed Canada.
“The concern is that pollen would contaminate wild alfalfa, which would then contaminate the crops — it would slowly move and become a pest,” said Kerschbaumer.
“The problem is because alfalfa is pollinated by bees and the pollen moves from the fields of hay where it is blooming. The concern is that the pollen and nectar would be transferred to wild alfalfa in ditches.
“It’s hard to find a fenceline or the edge of a pipeline or a ditch where there isn’t some alfalfa growing. There is wild alfalfa everywhere.”
Roundup Ready alfalfa was developed a decade ago by an Idaho alfalfa-breeding company, Forage Genetics International, using Monsanto technology. It has been approved for Canada, but Forage Genetics International needs to develop a stewardship agreement — also known as a “coexistence” plan — before it can be marketed here.
The company has developed a coexistence plan for Eastern Canada — which only has about 10,000 forage seed acres — but last year announced it wanted to create a national coexistence plan, since forage alfalfa has been approved for sale by CFIA. That move has been strongly opposed by Forage Seed Canada, which argues coexistence is not possible because pollen cannot be confined to one field.
The case in southern Alberta is a stark example of how difficult it is to keep the GM genie in the bottle.
Foundation seed is created from breeder’s seed and, in theory, should be a pure variety. The southern Alberta grower said it was only a fluke that he learned his batch of seed contained trace amounts of Roundup Ready alfalfa.
“We put in a field and we seeded too much,” said the farmer. “We had a 10-inch drill and we upped the rate and it canopied in and choked all the alfalfa out. The stand was really thin. We had all-risk insurance and there wasn’t enough plant density to insure so we took it out.”
That was when he got the surprise of a lifetime.
After spraying the field with Roundup, the grower said he was stunned to see that about 100 plants across the entire field had survived. He sprayed the survivors with a broadleaf herbicide, and summerfallowed the field for a year to ensure any subsequent survivors were plowed down, before putting it back into alfalfa seed.
‘Someone has screwed up’
Although he immediately contacted Forage Genetics International and company officials inspected the field, he said he neither asked nor was told if other batches of contaminated foundation seed were sold to other growers.
An official with Forage Genetics International said he wasn’t familiar with details of the Alberta incident but said contamination can happen.
“If someone buys seed from the U.S., they can end up with Roundup alfalfa,” said Mike Peterson, the company’s lead for Global Traits. “If a seed company doesn’t have good, correct quality controls, anything can happen. It’s the same thing where you could have a conventional soybean in Ontario and it could be loaded up with traits. It does happen and someone has screwed up.
“There are controls in place. This is a breakdown in quality control.”
The contaminated seed would have to have come in illegally from the U.S., he said.
“Companies can be lousy companies, and not have formal, rigid quality controls and test their seed,” said Peterson. “That’s one way it can happen. It’s not approved for sale or use in Western Canada but it is in the U.S., so you could bring it across from Idaho or Montana or whatever.
“We take those things very seriously, so we don’t think there is any GE alfalfa in Western Canada right now.”
There is a “very easy” test for genetically modified alfalfa and if a commercial seed producer follows proper protocols, there should not be a problem, he added.
“It’s really just a breakdown in process,” said Peterson. “We all know what needs to be done to prevent it. It’s not hard. It’s just companies being lazy, is what it is.”
(It is also possible to bring seed across the border without a licence — which allegedly happened in 2011 in Saskatchewan — but that was not the case in the Alberta incident.)
Seed versus hay
But Kerschbaumer said she fears the accidental release of Roundup Ready alfalfa is a forerunner of what’s to come.
Forage Genetics International, which established a coexistence plan for Eastern Canada several years ago, is now doing the same in Western Canada, she said.
“We’re hoping that that means that they’re not going to start selling it in Canada this spring,” said Kerschbaumer. “They keep pushing to get this (the coexistence plan) in place, and saying they want it in place before the beginning of March. It’s a rush to try to get something this serious figured out.”
But Peterson said the coexistence plan is only for production of GM hay — not alfalfa seed — and that’s a critical difference.
“We’re not going to have GE seed production,” he said. “That’s where the greatest risks occur, from pollen flow. The coexistence planning that we’ve been working on is if we have GE hay next to a conventional hayfield.
“I don’t want to say never, but FGI does not have short-, medium-, or long-term plans to see GE alfalfa seed in Canada. That’s not on the table right now. (Western Canada) is a valuable conventional seed production area, so we don’t want to change that at this time.”
Contamination is unlikely in hay production because a field of GM alfalfa would have to flower at the same time as a nearby conventional field, and then the conventional field would then have to be left unharvested for another 60 to 70 days before it went to seed, Peterson said.
Moreover, his company has not said it will start selling Roundup Ready alfalfa for hay production in Canada, he added.
“If we did sell GE alfalfa for hay production, the intent would be initially, that it would only be done from Ontario east because there’s no seed production there,” said Peterson. “But we have not even announced that we’re selling traits in Canada yet.”
‘People are worried’
But the incident four years ago shows the challenge of preventing contamination entirely, said Kerschbaumer.
Most forage seed growers aren’t opponents of genetic modification, but are fearful of the prospect of losing profitable overseas customers.
“Alberta is the biggest seed production area,” she said. “This is risking all of our seed markets. That’s why there are people worried about it.”
A newly released USDA study on “transgenic feral alfalfa” will only fan those fears.
The study surveyed 4,580 fields in California, Idaho, and Washington state where conventional alfalfa seed was being grown. About 10 per cent of fields had feral or rogue varieties, and in 27 per cent of those cases, the rogue varieties were transgenic. The study didn’t look for causes — both seed spillage and pollinators are possible causes — but its author said it “confirms that genetically engineered alfalfa has dispersed into the environment.”
The USDA study also put some numbers on a problem that has been evident for years.
Roundup Ready alfalfa has been widely grown in the U.S., but not in California’s Imperial Valley. Growers there produce more than $100 million of hay annually, much of it for export, and successfully fought to make the valley a “GM-free” zone.
Nevertheless, several loads of hay from the Imperial Valley exported to China have tested positive and three major growers have reportedly been “blacklisted” by Chinese buyers.
Assessing the risks
Both the Imperial Valley situation and the incident in southern Alberta prove that contamination is inevitable, said Kerschbaumer.
She added that her exports have been tested and although none had transgenic alfalfa contamination, one container load of timothy hay was rejected by a customer four years ago after a single canola seed was found in a 25-gram sample.
Peterson concedes there are risks. The greatest risk is when Roundup Ready seed is being produced near a non-GM seed operation.
“There’s hay to hay, hay to seed, and seed to seed,” he said. “Seed to seed is the worst. If you have GE seed next to non-GE seed, that’s something that we’re not proposing at all.
“Even having GE hay next to conventional seed is a little bit risky without putting significant isolations between them.”
But the contamination threat can be managed, said an official with the Canadian Seed Trade Association.
“There are some different opinions about whether we should have the technology or not,” said Crosby Devitt, the organization’s executive director. “From a perspective of the Canadian Seed Trade Association and those that represent all sides of the industry, the best way to go forward is to find a way to coexist. Everybody’s ideas and concerns are valid. Let’s get them all out on the table and work together on it.”
His organization has not been told if or when GM alfalfa is coming to Western Canada.
“We will find out at the same time as everyone else,” said Devitt. “We do know that the product is approved and there isn’t any barrier to bringing the product into Canada or selling it.”
Nevertheless, he added, “what we expect is that it is likely not going to be in Western Canada.”
Developing a coexistence plan for Western Canada does not mean Roundup Ready hay will be grown on the Prairies, added Peterson.
“This will be the national coexistence plan and we’re revising the Eastern (Canada) plan to make it a national plan,” he said. “That’s the process right now, and we’re in the middle of doing that.”