Coexistence plan for GM alfalfa won’t eliminate risk

Expert says stopping the spread of the glyphosate-tolerant trait is virtually impossible, but levels can be kept ‘very, very low’

The recently released “coexistence plan” for genetically modified alfalfa in Western Canada doesn’t offer any guarantees that conventional and organic crops won’t be contaminated, says an expert on gene transfer.

Rene Van Acker

Rene Van Acker
photo: Supplied

“It really depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” said Rene Van Acker, a professor of plant science at the University of Guelph. “If it’s a threshold of zero, that’s difficult, if not impossible.”

Van Acker co-authored two of the four papers reviewed by a group of forage specialists, seed producers, and alfalfa growers who created the voluntary coexistence guidelines for the Canadian Seed Trade Association.

Although GM alfalfa isn’t currently being grown in Western Canada, the release of the plan has raised fears it will pave the way for commercial production of the controversial crop. A similar plan was created for Eastern Canada in 2013 and in March, Forage Genetics International announced it would sell limited amounts of HarvXtra alfalfa, a glyphosate-tolerant variety, this spring.

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A number of groups — including Forage Seed Canada, Peace Region Forage Seed Association, and Organic Alberta — say contamination of conventional and organic forage seed and hay would cost them lucrative markets that have a zero-tolerance policy for GM traits.

“Zero is a very low number,” said Van Acker. “There’s always the possibility for something very rare, and it would be very rare.

“I’m not sure that the threshold should be zero. If there was a threshold of .01 per cent, then they should have something to work with. With reasonable practices and awareness and neighbours talking to each other, things are possible. It is possible to maintain decent segregation at a reasonable threshold level.”

Since the GM variety has been registered for commercial sale and production by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, there is no legal recourse if the GM trait spreads to conventional or organic alfalfa.

“There’s no compensation if you are contaminated, and no one can enforce the best management practices because it’s not required by law,” said Van Acker.

In Europe, there is coexistence legislation, with legal regulations and search and seizure rights. Nothing like that exists in North America.

CSTA_CoExist_brochure_West_.jpg

In April, 15 farm organizations asked the federal agriculture minister to ban the sale of GM alfalfa until a full economic impact assessment is conducted. The Alberta Association Of Municipal Districts has made a similar call to the province, but neither government has responded to the requests.

At this point, the best option may be for concerned growers in a region to work together to reduce the threat by employing best practices, especially separation distances, said Van Acker.

People should also recognize that any transfer of the Roundup Ready trait to feral alfalfa is a different situation from what happens when weeds become resistant to glyphosate, he said. In the latter, weeds with the trait are “selected” because glyphosate is constantly being used.

“There’s a piece of good news,” said Van Acker. “If it’s a Roundup Ready trait, that trait is a neutral trait and it is not selected for in the environment unless you spray Roundup. If it escapes into an environment where Roundup isn’t sprayed on the population, then the frequency of the trait in the population remains at the invasion level — very, very low.”

If genetically modified alfalfa contaminates conventional or organic at a low level — such as one in 10,000 plants — it should remain at that level in the population.

However, getting rid of even a low level of contamination is virtually impossible. And while the best management practices in the coexistence plan are good guidelines, they also come with challenges, said Van Acker.

“Best management practices include things like managing roadsides (by mowing or spraying with another herbicide). Whose jurisdiction is that? And how diligent are you going to be or do you have to be?”

In order to implement an effective coexistence plan, producers growing GM alfalfa need to be diligent and also talk with growers who may be affected, he said.

It’s also important to watch what happens with thresholds in GM-sensitive markets.

“Even in Europe, there’s a threshold for final products for the labelling of GM, but that still hasn’t been parsed out for how clean the seed has to be, for example,” said Van Acker. “If the final product in the grocery store is .09 (per cent), how clean does the seed need to be? That still makes things difficult. That’s where many people — exporters in particular — are thinking, watching and worrying.”

The coexistence plan can be found at cdnseed.org.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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