Does genetically engineered alfalfa have a place in Alberta?

There are advantages to GE alfalfa — but for most Alberta producers, the benefits don’t outweigh the risks

Genetically engineered alfalfa is gaining traction in Ontario — but don’t expect to see it in Alberta any time soon.

During its June board meeting, the Alberta Forage Industry Network reaffirmed its 2016 position that Alberta should remain GE alfalfa free.

That decision was an easy one, said Strathmore-area hay grower and marketer John Bland.

“Plain and simple, we’d have a loss of markets,” said Bland, who sits on the forage board. “It would be devastating to the hay and seed industries to have GE alfalfa.”

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Genetically engineered alfalfa sparked a firestorm in Alberta in 2013, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved five Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties that were set to hit shelves in Eastern Canada in the spring of 2014. At the time, 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 that year anyway, and the varieties began to take off.

Since then, Forage Genetics International has released six new GE alfalfa varieties called HarvXtra in Eastern Canada, and over the three years since its initial release, sales have doubled year after year, with around 10,000 acres planted in Ontario this year.

But as the push against genetically engineered crops grows across the globe, Alberta’s alfalfa seed and export hay industries are worried about the risk of contamination in their GE-free crops.

“It would definitely impact the seed industry and the export hay market,” said Heather Kerschbaumer, a Fairview-area seed grower. “Most of it is going outside of North America, and they don’t want GE in any of their alfalfa — not in the seed or in the hay.”

Right now, China is Canada’s second-biggest importer of alfalfa seed (after the United States), followed closely by countries in the European Union. The alfalfa hay market in China and the European Union has also grown significantly over the past 10 years. Alberta producers could lose those markets if there were even a whiff of contamination from a GE alfalfa crop.

“The acceptance level on seed is still zero,” said Kerschbaumer. “Europe has no tolerance. Asia has no tolerance. So if we were to be contaminated, we just wouldn’t have that market anymore. It would affect us drastically.”

And the risk is real.

The threat of contamination has plagued alfalfa growers in supposedly GE-free zones in the United States, where alfalfa exports are valued at around $600 million.

“Seed producers down in the States are still telling us how wise we are not to have contaminated ourselves,” said Kerschbaumer. “They’re still struggling with contamination issues in places where it’s not supposed to be, and it’s definitely affecting our production areas down there.”

In Ontario, that risk is relatively non-existent — there is no alfalfa seed production in Eastern Canada, and in most operations, HarvXtra is grown as a forage crop and cut at 10 per cent bloom, before it produces seed.

“It’s a totally different world in Ontario than it is here,” said Kerschbaumer. “Here, the seed producers would be the first impacted.”

HarvXtra benefits

It’s easy to see the draw for livestock producers, though.

Each HarvXtra alfalfa variety has two traits: the HarvXtra trait, which reduces lignin content and improves fibre digestibility; and the Roundup Ready trait, which allows farmers to spray Roundup on their weeds without risking the crop.

“There really has never been an improvement this large in forage quality in alfalfa,” said Jay Hackney, trait stewardship lead with Forage Genetics International. “This is really quite a game changer in how farmers can manage their alfalfa crop.”

The HarvXtra trait offers a 15 to 20 per cent improvement in fibre digestibility, which means farmers can delay cutting their alfalfa by seven to 10 days, gaining yield without sacrificing forage quality.

“Now farmers have a new flexibility in managing alfalfa,” said Hackney. “They can cut it earlier and get improved forage quality, or they can cut it later and get improved yield and still have dairy-quality forage.”

The Roundup Ready trait is a nice bonus, he added.

“It’s resistant to Roundup herbicides, so weed control is excellent — considerably better than it is for the current options available to farmers now.”

That’s something that appeals to Duane Movald, who operates a mid-size mixed farming operation near Breton, an area that traditionally doesn’t grow alfalfa well.

“Profitability comes from the volume of feed you can create,” said Movald. “With something like this, you can get more production off what you’re already doing because of less competition from weeds, and you’re getting the most use out of your inputs because they’re going to the plants you want to propagate instead of the weeds.

“If we can be more competitive because of it, why wouldn’t we look at it?”

Even so, Movald isn’t sure his gain is worth another farmer’s pain.

“It’s a real catch-22,” he said. “Of course we want to look at whatever we can to make our operation more efficient. We want to do what we can to be more profitable. However, you don’t want to take another industry down just to benefit your own operation.”

GE alfalfa a ‘non-starter’

While the area he farms doesn’t have any alfalfa seed production, Movald sees the potential impact GE alfalfa could have on seed and hay growers in other parts of the province.

“We’re an exporting country, and we have to be able to move our stuff. If that can’t happen, it could really impact the profitability of the seed growers in the marketplace,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want to have it released in a way that would negatively affect the seed growers, so for it to come in, it would have to be in a way that’s manageable for everyone involved.”

Like Movald, Bland could stand to benefit from GE alfalfa, but wouldn’t grow it if it meant risking the seed and hay industries in the province.

“Because I’m not an exporter of seed or forage, it would be a slight positive — in my straight alfalfa fields, I could spray for weeds,” he said.

“For any grower who has straight alfalfa, I think there would be a pretty big advantage. But I’m still willing to forgo that because we have to look at the big picture.

“I see the downside to a huge seed industry and a huge export industry, and recognize that we need to stay GE alfalfa free.”

For Doug Wray, GE alfalfa is “a non-starter” — not only because of the impacts on the forage seed and hay industries, but for its potential impact on his own operation as well.

“We don’t see it as a factor on our operation, and I don’t see it as a factor in the beef industry generally,” said the Irricana rancher. “It’s not going to get any traction there, I don’t think.”

In mixed pastures — like the grass-legume mix Wray has on his own operation — the Roundup Ready trait isn’t a benefit, since spraying would kill forages as well as any weeds. And for those producers who do feed hay, few are willing to risk the possibility of bloat by feeding straight alfalfa.

“We grew straight alfalfa stands 20 years ago, and it turned out not to be the best idea. There was too much bloat risk and not enough productivity,” he said.

Even with the added benefit of improved digestibility in the HarvXtra trait, Wray still isn’t convinced it has a place on his operation.

“We’re raising beef cattle, and we’ve got some high-legume pastures that have all the nutrition those cattle can handle,” he said.

“We’ve had gains on heifers of three pounds a day on our legume-grass pastures as it is, so we’re more interested in things that will stretch out our grazing season than we are in trying to add just a little more quality to what we have in the summer.

“On our operation, we have no interest in it at all. It’s got no place here at this time.”

A GE alfalfa-free future

That seems to be the consensus across Alberta. GE alfalfa is well established in parts of the U.S. and has been gaining ground in Eastern Canada, but few farmers are exploring it as an option here at home.

“The demand for it has not picked up,” said Kerschbaumer. “We have maybe one person every year who asks us about it out of the 600 people we deal with.”

And while demand does seem to be growing, Forage Genetics International has no immediate plans to bring GE alfalfa to Alberta.

“Our intention from the start was that we were not going to sell HarvXtra in the western provinces to avoid any potential for problems with alfalfa seed production in Western Canada,” said Hackney.

“But our position has always been that if there was demand from farmers in Western Canada, we would entertain the idea of selling it there as well.

“If demand continues to increase, we might find it’s a reasonable proposition to sell it in Western Canada.”

Even though few Alberta farmers are exploring GE alfalfa now, some are starting to see a future where it fits on their operations — as long as it’s done right.

“It’s a big ball of wax that has to be sorted out first,” said Movald. “It has so many potential benefits, but it has to be used in a way that works for everybody.”

In the meantime, the industry has an opportunity to look at other areas that have grown it and learn from their mistakes, he added.

“We’re in a situation here where we can learn from things that didn’t work in other areas,” said Movald. “This is the time to absorb all that information and implement it the best we can so that we can have a leg up over these other areas.”

That will become increasingly important as more and more GE varieties are created and released, Wray added.

“I think we have to be cognizant of the fact GE technology may be of real value to us, so we don’t want to write it off entirely,” said Wray. “I think we have to keep that tool in our tool box.”

But for Kerschbaumer, the benefits simply don’t outweigh the risks.

“If something like that came in, it would be irreversible. The damage would already be done,” she said.

“Right now, it hasn’t been. So if we can maintain what we’re doing, we would have access to these markets. But if we contaminated ourselves, we would have no access to these markets.

“We have a competitive advantage here because we’re not contaminated here.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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