Roundup Ready alfalfa primed for launch in East

But critics of GM alfalfa say U.S. experience shows that ‘coexistence’ isn’t possible

Roundup Ready alfalfa is being launched on a limited basis in Canada’s six eastern provinces.

Forage Genetics International (FGI) said late last month it will be releasing some HarvXtra alfalfa seed for planting this spring — but critics of GM alfalfa denounced the move, saying it’s “a myth” it won’t contaminate non-GM seed and hay production.

HarvXtra alfalfa has Monsanto’s glyphosate-tolerant Roundup Ready genetics plus a trait for lower levels of lignin, a structural component of alfalfa plants that holds them upright but makes them less digestible for cattle.

Forage Genetics said GM and conventional alfalfa can “coexist” because HarvXtra will only be grown for commercial hay production under stewardship protocols developed through the Canadian Seed Trade Association, and also because all seed production of its GM variety is done in the U.S.

“Similar stewardship plans in the U.S. have allowed organic, conventional, and genetically modified alfalfa farmers to coexist, regardless of the production method they choose,” Forage Genetics said in a press release.

Not so, said Heather Kerschbaumer, a forage seed grower in the Peace and president of Forage Seed Canada.

Heather Kerschbaumer

Heather Kerschbaumer
photo: Allan Dawson

“The company won’t admit coexistence is failing in the U.S., that there are definite contamination problems, that the U.S. is losing export markets, and that farmers are paying the price for those lost exports,” Kerschbaumer said in an email.

“Coexistence is a myth in most areas. Wild (feral) alfalfa is becoming contaminated, and their ‘coexistence plan’ is actually a ‘slow contamination plan’ in reality. There is a reason that the U.S. alfalfa companies are moving their multiplication contracts to southern Alberta growers, where they can still grow clean seed.”

Forage Genetics stressed its decision is “confined to the sale of seed for hay production” and not for alfalfa seed production. It also said it won’t be selling GM alfalfa on the Prairies until there are “additional stewardship guidelines to address the possibility of product moving from Eastern Canada to Western Canada.”

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But discussions about the coexistence plan have not addressed the concerns of forage seed and hay exporters who fear GM contamination would shut them out of key foreign markets that don’t accept GM seed or hay, said Kerschbaumer.

“Everyone who is a key stakeholder who has been involved in the ‘coexistence plan’ ongoing discussions has serious concerns that it will not safeguard anything,” she said. “The only stakeholders who seem to have their blinders on and continue to say it will work are FGI and Monsanto. They both have stated on the conference calls that coexistence is working in the U.S. and there have been no instances of contamination anywhere.”

But a USDA study has found feral alfalfa with GM traits is widespread south of the border. And Alberta Farmer reported in February that a batch of foundation seed contaminated with Roundup Ready alfalfa was sent to a forage seed grower in southern Alberta four years ago. Forage Genetics says it was an isolated incident and it has safeguards in place to prevent a repeat, but the company declined requests to provide details of those safeguards.

Last month, citing the potential loss of markets, the Alberta Association Of Municipal Districts and Counties passed a resolution requesting the provincial government keep GM alfalfa from being grown in the province until it is accepted by international markets.

Only a limited amount of HarvXtra alfalfa — enough for about 5,000 acres — will be sold in Eastern Canada this year, but any is too much, National Farmers Union president Jan Slomp wrote in a letter to federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay following Forage Genetic’s announcement.

“Several alfalfa markets are highly sensitive to GM contamination, including certified organic, seed, pellet, and hay exports to Europe, China and Japan, as well as domestic seed production and feed for organic livestock and dairy,” Slomp wrote.

“Because of its biological characteristics, it is not possible for GM alfalfa to ‘coexist’ with conventional alfalfa.”

In addition to having lower lignin, HarvXtra “offers more flexibility in cutting schedule to achieve improved forage quality or greater yield potential when compared to conventional alfalfa at the same stage of maturity,” said Forage Genetics.

But allowing hay harvests at later dates would increase bloom time “and hence, the unwanted spread of GM traits by cross-pollination,” said Slomp.

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