Heather Kerschbaumer just lost another forage seed sale because of GM contamination, reinforcing her opposition to allowing Roundup Ready alfalfa production in Canada.
The Fairview, Alta., seed grower and president of Forage Seed Canada says the association is seeking allies to help block Roundup Ready alfalfa from commercial Canadian production until certain conditions are met. The alternative is to lose important export markets for alfalfa seed and hay, Kerschbaumer said in a recent interview.
RR alfalfa is genetically modified to resist glyphosate, raising concerns from foreign buyers.
“Our goal is to keep it out of Western Canada at the very least,” she said, adding that’s where most of Canada’s forage seed is produced.
Forage Genetic International’s Roundup Ready alfalfa has been approved for commercial production in Canada, but so far the firm hasn’t released it here. There has been one meeting exploring how Roundup Ready alfalfa can coexist with conventional alfalfa in Canada and there’s talk of another. But Kerschbaumer fears once Roundup Ready alfalfa is grown it will be almost impossible to prevent cross-contamination, since alfalfa is a perennial crop that grows wild and pollen is spread by bees. Kerschbaumer says that’s been the experience in the United States, where Roundup Ready alfalfa has been grown for several years.
Forage Seed Canada, an umbrella group representing provincial forage seed associations, laid out its concerns in a position paper earlier this year. The association expects the backing of Canadian hay exporters, but also wants beef and dairy associations on side.
Kerschbaumer said Quebec dairy farmers told her during last fall’s Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s annual meeting that they don’t want Roundup Ready alfalfa. Beef producers shouldn’t either, given they almost always grow an alfalfa-grass mix and grasses die when sprayed with glyphosate.
Nevertheless, some Saskatchewan beef producers have said they support Roundup Ready alfalfa on principle since they already feed other GM crops, including corn and canola and soybean meal. They also back it because scientists have agreed that GM crops are safe.
That doesn’t address the fact that customers in China, Japan, the Middle East, Mexico and South America are demanding GM-free forage seed and hay, Kerschbaumer said.
Once Roundup Ready alfalfa is grown in Western Canada those markets will be lost forever, she added.
“It’s not something we can get back,” Kerschbaumer said. “If we decide in five years that’s all OK, I’m OK with that. I’m not against it either except I think they should slow down and make sure it’s not going to hurt us.”
It’s not a hypothetical fear. American hay exporters are increasingly having shipments rejected because of Roundup Ready contamination, she said. Some U.S. forage seed companies are testing their seed to ensure its not contaminated with Roundup Ready and sending it to Canada for multiplication. Then it’s sent back to the U.S. to grow. Kerschbaumer suspects that’s partly why Canada grew 5,300 more acres of certified alfalfa seed in 2014 compared to 2013.
Canadian flax growers also saw their main export market to Europe shut down for a while after traces of Triffid, a GM flax, were found in exports. Eventually, exports resumed, but Canada has not regained the more lucrative European food flax market.
While annual Canadian forage seed exports are worth around $140 million, hay exports are worth much more, Kerschbaumer said.
“The hay guys have a lot to lose,” she said. “And whatever the U.S. loses opens doors for Canada to pick up some of those markets. If we stay clean we’re going to be the only place that can grow that seed.”
Hay producers in parts of California’s Imperial Valley were able to get a prohibition on Roundup Ready alfalfa production, Kerschbaumer said. And Canada can too. Kerschbaumer said she was told that by Mark McCaslin, Forage Genetics International’s vice-president of research at a meeting in Las Vegas in January. According to her, McCaslin said if enough western Canadian farmers oppose Roundup Ready alfalfa Forage Genetics International won’t commercialize it there.
“I asked if he’d sign in blood, but he said his lawyer wouldn’t let him,” Kerschbaumer said, adding five or six other farmers also heard him say that.
Kerschbaumer knows first hand how GM contamination can affect forage seed markets. Last month she lost a 16,000-pound sale of yellow blossom sweet clover to northern Europe because some GM canola seeds were found in the shipment, even though it was certified organic.
It also shows how easily contamination can occur. The farmer who grew the seed says he hasn’t grown canola for 15 years and doesn’t believe the contamination occurred during or post-harvest, Kerschbaumer said.
This wasn’t Kerschbaumer’s first lost sale due to GM contamination. A 40,000-pound shipment of timothy seed destined for Japan was lost after one canola seed was found in a 25-gram sample collected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The seed dropped in value from 50 cents a pound from $1.
“So we lost $20,000 just from one canola seed,” she said.