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Concerns about Roundup Ready alfalfa raised at national forage meeting

Many forage and forage seed importers have zero tolerance for GM crops, including alfalfa

Asingle genetically modified (GM) canola seed cut the value of Heather Kerschbaumer’s timothy seed in half — costing her $20,000.

That’s why the seed farmer from Fairview, Alta., fears the introduction of GM Roundup Ready alfalfa.

“In my opinion I think it would be a devastating blow to the seed industry, especially for our Peace region, because we export so much seed and a lot of it goes into Europe and a lot of it goes to China, some of it goes to Japan — into all these markets where there is a zero tolerance (for GM crops),” Kerschbaumer, president of Forage Seed Canada, told reporters on the sidelines of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s annual meeting Nov. 17.

Kerschbaumer said the value of a $40,000 lot of timothy seed destined for Japan dropped to 50 cents a pound from $1 after one canola seed was found in a 25-gram sample collected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“So we lost $20,000 just from one canola seed,” she said.

Forage Genetics International’s Roundup Ready alfalfa, which has been genetically modified to tolerate Monsanto’s non-selective herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), is registered in Canada, but has not yet been commercialized. Kerschbaumer said it should stay on the shelf until there is widespread market acceptance.

Some American hay exporters have already been blacklisted by Chinese importers because of GM contamination, Ed Shaw, president and CEO of International Quality Forage in Carstairs, Alta., told the CFGA meeting.

While some of the contamination is from GM crops other than alfalfa, Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, which is grown commercially in the United States, is spreading, he said.

“We get seed from the States,” Shaw said. “I would be willing to bet that we would test positive for it (in some cases).”

Most GM crops are annuals, but alfalfa is a perennial and grows wild.

“When you get a perennial GMO, that’s different,” said CFGA president Doug Wray. “I don’t know how you keep that in the box.”

Sixty to 70 per cent of the forage seed shipped from the Peace region now contains some conventional alfalfa seeds, but there’s a tolerance for it, Kerschbaumer said. But there’s zero tolerance for GM alfalfa among most buyers, and even though some countries accept it, the buyers don’t, she said.

“It could potentially affect timothy, red clover, brome grasses, fescues — and that’s a huge industry for not just us in our area but for anybody who is growing seed and exporting,” Kerschbaumer said.

There are strong views on the pros and cons of Roundup Ready alfalfa and for that reason the CFGA has not taken a position, Wray said.

“The reality is there is no plan that will make everybody happy,” he said.

Forage Seed Canada, which represents the Manitoba Forage Seed Association, Saskatchewan Forage Seed Development Commission, Saskatchewan Leaf Cutter Association, Alfalfa Seed Commission and Peace Region Forage Seed Association, wants organizations opposed to Roundup Ready alfalfa, to speak with one voice, Kerschbaumer said.

Blocking Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada, or at least in parts of it, isn’t impossible, Kerschbaumer told the CFGA meeting. GM alfalfa production is restricted in California’s Imperial Valley. While the region is known for vegetable and fruit production, alfalfa is grown in rotation, making the area the United States’ biggest alfalfa exporter. To ensure GM-free alfalfa for export, they import seed “because there is so much (domestic seed) contamination already,” she said.

“When we were there (last year) they kept telling us if you don’t have it up in Canada, you should keep it out of Canada… because there are going to be benefits and bonuses paid on (GM-free) seed… and it will be the same with the hay.”

According to Kerschbaumer at a recent forage meeting in Kansas City, an official with Forage Genetics International said the company has Roundup Ready alfalfa test plots in Ontario and Quebec.

A Forage Genetics International representative was unavailable for an interview.

There are unconfirmed rumours some Quebec farmers are growing Roundup Ready alfalfa, Christian Ducheaneau with crop inputs company Synagri, told the meeting.

Initially Forage Genetics International said it would commercialize Roundup Ready alfalfa in the East where most of Canada’s dairy production occurs. But Kerschbaumer said to get crop insurance dairy farmers in Quebec are required to include grasses in their alfalfa fields. Since glyphosate kills grass, farmers wouldn’t grow Roundup Ready alfalfa, she said.

“That was a big eye-opener for us,” Kerschbaumer said. “Second of all, virtually nobody plants pure alfalfa.”

That’s especially true among beef cattle producers.

Even if Roundup Ready alfalfa is restricted to the East, it would likely spread gradually, according to Kerschbaumer.

“There’s almost no way to contain it because there is no wall between this guy’s field and that guy’s hay or a ditch,” she said. “So it’s just inevitable that it will spread.”

That’s why Forage Seed Canada encourages farmers to test their alfalfa seed for Roundup Ready alfalfa before planting, Kerschbaumer said.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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