Canadian farmers say sale of genetically modified alfalfa seed will wreak havoc on livelihoods of conventional and organic businesses.
EXCERPT: “We need a consultation on GM alfalfa that involves both farmers and consumers,” says Litster, president of the National Farmers Union in Simcoe and Dufferin counties. “If GM alfalfa is put on the market, it would spread and seriously hurt many farmers in Ontario, but no one’s listening to us.” So far, 38 communities in Canada have protested against the seed.
The GM controversy spreads to Canada’s largest crop
thestar.com, Dec 09 2013
* Farmers say sale of genetically modified alfalfa seed will wreak havoc on livelihoods of conventional and organic businesses.
Farmer Chris Litster looks at his 90 acres of land in Midland, Ont., and wonders if he’ll lose everything he owns because of a tiny genetically modified seed. Worse, he wonders if this alfalfa seed will spread across the country.
Litster, with 35 years of experience, raises livestock and sells beef directly to consumers, many of whom are in Toronto. His cows, like cattle in other parts of Canada, eat a lot of alfalfa — hay, as it’s known to most of us. His customers buy from his Still Hope Farm because the beef doesn’t contain any substance that’s genetically engineered.
But for the first time ever in Canada, seed companies are launching a GM seed — alfalfa — that’s a perennial, and it will likely invade non-GM fields. Litster says this will bankrupt him and many other conventional and organic farmers. Companies have launched GM seeds in the past, but never a perennial and rarely with so much controversy.
U.S.-based Forage Genetics International hopes that as early as this spring seed companies will sell GM alfalfa seeds in Eastern Canada. Recently, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which operates under Health Canada, approved five varieties of GM alfalfa for sale.
This is the latest launch in a trend that includes GM corn, canola, and soybeans, and could soon include GM apples that don’t turn brown and GM salmon that grows twice as fast as regular salmon. Canada health authorities concluded that the alfalfa varieties were safe for people, animals and the environment.
Some Ontario farmers question that assessment, but most are focused on the likelihood that it will spread across the country over time and that there will be economic consequences that Health Canada didn’t consider.
Seed companies say that it won’t spread if farmers co-operate to stop it but trying to stop its spread, counter farmers, is like trying to stop the common cold.
“We need a consultation on GM alfalfa that involves both farmers and consumers,” says Litster, president of the National Farmers Union in Simcoe and Dufferin counties. “If GM alfalfa is put on the market, it would spread and seriously hurt many farmers in Ontario, but no one’s listening to us.” So far, 38 communities in Canada have protested against the seed.
Approximately 20 per cent of Ontario’s cropland grows alfalfa, and the launch of the GM seeds will increase the stakes in a GM food war that now includes meat, fish, dairy and fruit. High-protein alfalfa is the most important and widely grown forage crop in Canada. In 2011, farmers grew it on more than 25-million acres, using it to nourish livestock and dairy animals, and exporting approximately $80-million in alfalfa products to other countries, most of whom reject GM varieties.
The GM seed — created by Forage Genetics using technology from Monsanto, one of the world’s largest seed-and-chemical companies — contains a bacterium gene that resists a Monsanto herbicide called glyphosate, or Roundup. Farmers spray their fields with the chemical to kill every plant except the chemical-resistant Roundup Ready alfalfa. The seed-chemical combo is a fast way of weeding.
“The seed will be produced in the U.S. and could be in Eastern Canada in the spring if a decision to commercialize is made and if a stewardship agreement is finalized,” says Stephen Denys, vice-president of sales and marketing for Ontario-based Pride Seeds, one of six companies that would sell the seed. The other Ontario sellers are Growmark, Quality Seeds, and Pickseed.
“The stewardship agreement will be a contract between farmers, Forage Genetics, and patent-owner Monsanto,” says Erick Lutterotti, general manager of Gold Medal Seeds, a subsidiary of Forage Genetics that registered the GM alfalfa varieties in Canada. Farmers will have to sign the agreement before buying or planting the seed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is also involved with the agreement.
Nearly 80 per cent of alfalfa acreage is in Western Canada and 20 per cent in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, but seed companies will launch in Eastern Canada because Prairie farmers have protested more loudly, according to Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a coalition of 17 organizations.
“Alfalfa producers know that you cannot contain the spread of GM alfalfa,” says Jim Lintott, a Manitoba farmer and board chairman of the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association.
“Insects and water spread seeds and pollen to roadside ditches and parks,” he says. “And alfalfa seeds lie dormant in the soil and can germinate years later to create a new source of GM seeds. In Manitoba, 40 per cent of our land is in forage production, and a drive through rural Manitoba will show you that wild alfalfa is everywhere. You can’t do anything to stop alfalfa.”
He adds that the biggest problem is spending money on varieties that have no yield increases over three to four years. “The only argument for it is weed control, but there are already chemicals for that.”
However, Alberta farmer Aaron Vanee says that hay producers need the weed control when they want fields of 100-per-cent alfalfa. One of his jobs is to sign up farmers who want to produce alfalfa seeds for Forage Genetics. “Some farmers like to grow alfalfa by itself as a protein source to be blended with other crops.”
Jumping into the controversy is the Canadian Seed Trade Association, a lobby for Forage Genetics, Monsanto, and other seed-and-chemical companies. It argues that GM fields can coexist in the same regions as conventional and organic fields.
It has a plan that lists 17 “best-management practises” that should stop the spread of modified genes, including seed testing, equipment cleaning, mowing wild alfalfa from roadsides and ditches, talking to neighbours to find out who’s growing GM alfalfa, and ensuring there’s “clear corrective action for non-compliance.”
“Given the history in the U.S., I don’t think we’ll see issues with contamination if people follow the coexistence plan and the stewardship agreement,” says Stephen Denys, a vice-president with Pride Seeds who helped to create the plan.
But GM alfalfa did spread in the U.S. This summer, the alfalfa hay of a farmer in Washington state was rejected for export because it was contaminated with GM alfalfa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the contamination but said that it was a “commercial issue” and wasn’t the government’s responsibility.
U.S. farmers and consumer groups had fought their government for a decade to keep GM alfalfa from contaminating conventional and organic fields.
Still, the Canadian seed lobby insists that its co-existence plan will work, assuming, among other things, goodwill among neighbours.
Litster reacts with frustration: “There are farmers who don’t always co-operate with their neighbours — and what happens then? And our neighbours might not even know they have it. And there are so many nooks and crannies in equipment that a good cleaning won’t always happen, especially during busy seeding times.”
It doesn’t help that alfalfa seeds are tiny — only about two millimetres long.
“I don’t think the coexistence plan is feasible over the long term,” Litster says. He says that farmers in Eastern and Western Canada share hay during disaster-recovery efforts, such as the HayEast program during the drought in Ontario in 2012 and the Hay West program during Western Canada’s drought in 2002.
“GM seeds can spread in these programs if the alfalfa is cut after it seeds,” Litster says.
He also points to GM flax. It spread to non-GMO fields in Canada and ended up in exports to 35 countries in 2009, even though GM flax was illegal to sell and had been rounded up and destroyed years before. Canada was a world leader in flax production and export, and the contamination cost farmers, seed companies and the Canadian government millions of dollars.
There was a similar situation involving canola contamination between 1995 and 1998. Even with strict purity-management controls in Canada, GM canola escaped. Now, more than 97 per cent of Canada’s canola is GM and most organic farmers don’t bother trying to grow it, because GMOs aren’t allowed in organic food.
“If professional seed growers can’t control GM seeds, it’s not reasonable to expect the general population of farmers to control it,” says Lucy Sharratt of CBAN.
“The industry made up a list of impractical measures for farmers to follow and called it a coexistence plan,” she says. “It’s not based on science or reality. Both conventional and organic farmers are against it, across Canada.”
She also emphasizes that Canada’s organic market is growing rapidly and the continuing spread of GM seeds will devastate it. In 2012, organic markets grew to $3.7 billion, tripling since 2006 and far outpacing the growth rate of other agri-food sectors. According to the Canada Organic Trade Association, nearly 60 per cent of Canadians buy organic products every week.
This fall, two Ontario farmers, one an organic dairy farmer and the other a producer of vegetables and grass-fed beef, made a plea to Ontario’s Environment Ministry, officially asking for an environmental assessment of GM alfalfa under the Environmental Bill of Rights. The Ministry refused, noting that the issue was under federal jurisdiction.
“This assessment would have been an ideal way to hear the concerns of farmers in Ontario and document the contamination threat from GM alfalfa,” Sharratt says. “Incredibly, there’s still no consultation with farmers or consumers, at any level of government, before GM seeds are approved. The federal and provincial governments are so obviously failing Canadians on the issue of GM foods and crops.”
She says she wonders if Forage Genetics is trying to use Eastern Canada to introduce GM alfalfa across the country. “How much political voice do family farmers in Ontario have when they’re up against Forage Genetics twinned with Monsanto?” she says.
“As of right now, there are no plans for anything for Western Canada,” Gold Medal’s Erick Lutterotti says. Western farmers are trying to protect certain markets; countries around the world won’t accept crops and foods that contain GM material.
“It’s easier to launch in the East because most of the hay isn’t for export or seeds,” Lutterotti says. “More than 95 per cent of Canada’s alfalfa seed production is done in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and that will need a whole different coexistence plan. Without a plan in the West, we’re not going to release it.”
Sharratt and others insist this misses the point. “There will be only one outcome if the industry releases the GM seeds,” she says. “Contamination.”