“The genie’s out of the bottle.”
– JIM LINTOTT, MANITOBA FORAGE COUNCIL
Acoalition of 80 farm and food organizations, including Manitoba forage producers, is calling for an immediate halt to field testing of genetically modified alfalfa in Canada.
The groups want existing test plots of GM alfalfa uprooted and full-scale commercialization of the crop blocked.
The coalition last week issued a statement demanding the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reverse its 2005 regulatory approval for the environmental release of Roundup Ready alfalfa, a GM crop resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.
Its members represent a broad, diverse range of agricultural interests, including organic and non-organic farmers, food businesses, environmental activists and animal welfare advocates.
The group said the commercialization of GM alfalfa would “have a severe, negative impact on Canadian agriculture, markets and our environment.”
The concerns centre on the risk of genetic cross-contamination by GM alfalfa of regular alfalfa, which could affect exports to countries with zero GM tolerance.
“Once you had a GM alfalfa released in Canada, you’d have a very difficult time guaranteeing you were shipping clean seed,” said Jim Lintott, who chairs the Manitoba Forage Council, a coalition member.
The same applies to hay exports, he said.
Roundup Ready alfalfa is a joint effort of Monsanto, which holds the patent to the resistant trait, and Forage Genetics International, an Idaho-based company licensed to produce the seed.
The GM crop has had full food, feed and environmental release approval from Canadian regulatory authorities since July 2005, said Trish Jordan, a Monsanto Canada spokesperson.
It still requires regulatory approval for herbicide label use and variety registration.
But no decision has been made to commercialize Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada and only Forage Genetics International can do that, Jordan said.
If FGI decides to go ahead, Roundup Ready alfalfa could become a “commercial reality” in Canada by 2012, she said.
Western Canada’s forage seed producers have opposed its general release from the get-go, fearing GM cross-contamination with other alfalfa will shut them out of important exports markets in Europe and elsewhere.
Even the existence of test plots creates too much contamination risk, said Lintott.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” he said. “Once you’ve got the gene pool in your community, how are you going to contain it?”
Recent research confirms producers’ fears that genes can move between different kinds of alfalfa and produce cross-contamination.
A paper by Rene Van Acker, a University of Guelph plant scientist, and Muthukumar Bagavathiannan, a University of Manitoba post-graduate student, found that genes can flow from commercial alfalfa to nearby feral (wild) alfalfa and back again.
“The establishment, presence and persistence of feral alfalfa populations will have implications for the release of GM alfalfa, as these populations make the complete confinement of GM traits very difficult, and once a given GM trait escapes into the environment, retraction of the trait will be unlikely,” the paper said.
“As such, feral alfalfa is a barrier for the successful coexistence of GM and non-GM alfalfa,” it added.
But Van Acker said it would be less difficult to stop gene flow from test plots than from commercial crops.
“There’s a substantive difference between confined field trials and commercial production,” Van Acker said.
“If you’re talking about contained field trials, there are ways and means of containing GM alfalfa. But you have to be very diligent, there has to be third-party oversight and there has to be care in managing feral populations nearby.”
Roundup Ready alfalfa was already being grown commercially in the U. S. when a 2007 California court ruling brought its sales to an abrupt halt.
The court ruled the U. S. Department of Agriculture did not complete an environmental impact statement before allowing commercialization. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is working on the statement, which could be ready in 2010.
A company spokesperson said FGI currently does not have plans to commercialize Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada.
“If and when Canadian alfalfa forage growers express interest in the technology, and an appropriate stewardship program is designed by the industry to protect sensitive seed markets, Forage Genetics International would consider commercialization,” the spokesperson said.
Roundup Ready alfalfa’s interruption in the U. S. has raised speculation that Forage Genetics International may want to speed up its release in Canada.
Monsanto conducted its first Roundup Ready alfalfa trials in Canada from 2001 to 2003 to support regulatory approval and commercialization plans in the U. S. It resumed trials in 2008 at 12 sites covering a total of 24.8 acres in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta (four sites in each province). Work in 2009 will focus on residue and crop tolerance. Monsanto expects to submit data by 2010 to the Pest Management Regulatory Agency for use in label approval, Jordan said.
However, she said Monsanto’s research trials are small scale compared to other GM alfalfa trials in Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the University of Guelph and others have conducted trials of non-regulated biotech alfalfa at 277 locations since 1998.
“This is the interesting thing that this group does not appear to grasp for whatever reason,” said Jordan. [email protected]