Manitoba Growers Edgy About GM Alfalfa Release In U.S.

Manitoba forage seed producers are dismayed, but not surprised that American regulators have released Roundup Ready alfalfa in the U.S. without restrictions.

“Whoever thought that Roundup Ready wasn’t going to come to the market was living in a dream world,” said Adam Gregory, an alfalfa seed producer from Fisher Branch.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week said American farmers could grow genetically modified alfalfa without the restrictions opponents call necessary to protect conventional and organic fields from cross-contamination. Planting is expected to start this spring.

Gregory, who grows 1,000 acres of alfalfa seed, said Manitoba producers are in a new world, now that GM alfalfa can be planted in the U.S.

“It’s going to mean changes for the industry. Things are going to have to be treated differently now that this is going to be out there.”

NOT HERE YET

Roundup Ready alfalfa is not grown in Canada and likely won’t be for another two years or so. Monsanto, which holds the patent to the GM techology, has applied to the Pest Management Regulatory Agency for label approval to use Roundup on the crop. Approval could take 18 to 24 months.

But Gregory said it’s just a matter of time before Roundup Ready alfalfa genes show up in Canada.

“There’s about a zillion different ways it can happen.”

Gregory said Canadian producers get much of their parent seed from the U.S. He suggested an American producer who grows both Roundup Ready and conventional alfalfa could easily get seeds of both into his equipment and not be able to clean them out completely. Or GM alfalfa could cross-contaminate conventional alfalfa through gene flow. Growers worry even pre-screening shipments could not guarantee them as GM free.

BIG WORRY

The big worry for growers is that the European Union could ban Canadian alfalfa seed imports because of GM contamination. The EU has a zero-tolerance policy toward GM in imported seed.

Europe is a significant market for western Canadian alfalfa seed growers, importing 20 per cent or more of their production.

The Manitoba Forage Seed Association is on record as saying Ottawa should compensate growers if GM contamination causes producers to lose export sales.

Marcel Gousseau, MFSA president, said directors would discuss developments at a board meeting in Teulon this week. He declined further comment.

Forage Genetics International, an Iowa-based company, is licensed to produce Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. FGI president Mark McCaslin told a Jan. 10 MFSA meeting his company plans to grow test plots for forage only in Eastern Canada in 2011 and 2012.

McCaslin told MFSA members FGI will not release Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada unless growers express interest in it and a coexistence plan is agreed upon.

Gregory said he was not reassured.

“That’s a nice promise but unless it’s in writing, it really doesn’t mean a whole lot.”

IMPACT STATEMENT

The USDA decision follows the December release of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which laid out three options for deregulating (releasing) Roundup Ready alfalfa. They were: not to deregulate the variety, deregulate it with conditions (e. g., planting it only in certain areas), or deregulate it without restrictions.

The decision by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) was for the third option.

“After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa… APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” USDA secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

Monsanto hailed the decision as great news for farmers.

“USDA’s action gives farmers the choice to enjoy the benefits of this product, including superior crop safety and high-quality yield opportunity,” said Steve Welker, Monsanto’s alfalfa business lead.

Others denounced the unrestricted release of GM alfalfa in the U.S.

“It appears that the political muscle of (the) biotech sector trumped the many concerns about widespread contamination of organic and conventional alfalfa that were expressed by tens of thousands of consumers and farmers to the USDA,” said Will Fantle of The Cornucopia Institute.

(With files from Reuters) [email protected]

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