The American government is imminently expected to approve the commercial release of Roundup Ready alfalfa in the U.S. – a move which deeply worries Manitoba forage seed producers.
Growers fear it’s just a matter of time before genes from the GM variety enter Canada, cross-contaminate non-GM alfalfa and wreck forage seed sales to Europe, which bans GM imports.
“There’s a lot of trepidation in our industry,” said Marcel Gousseau, Manitoba Forage Seed Association president, during the organization’s Jan. 10 annual meeting in Winnipeg.
The United States Department of Agriculture in the next few weeks will publish a decision on producing genetically modified alfalfa in the U.S. USDA is expected to approve either unconfined release or growing the variety with conditions.
USDA released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) Dec. 16 on Roundup Ready alfalfa. It promised the decision “in the very near future” and “in a timely manner to allow growers, if possible, to make decisions regarding the planting of alfalfa this spring.”
At present, Roundup Ready alfalfa is regulated (not approved for general release) in the U.S. The 2,300-page EIS lists three options: keep it regulated, deregulate it completely or deregulate it with conditions. Those could include geographic restrictions and isolation distances.
USDA makes it clear the first option is not on and one of the other two is preferred.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held an industry stakeholder meet ing in Washington, D.C. Dec. 20 to discuss ways Roundup Ready alfalfa can coexist with non-GE products.
“We at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and co-operation,” Vilsack said in a statement.
All signs point to the commercial release of Roundup Ready alfalfa in the U.S., with or without conditions, this spring.
For farmers to plant the crop this year, USDA will probably have to issue its decision by early February, said Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International.
FGI is an Idaho-based company licensed to produce Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. Monsanto holds the patent to the Roundup Ready technology.
In a presentation to the MFSA meeting, McCaslin said surveys show U.S. producers are either satisfied or very satisfied with the prospect of Roundup Ready alfalfa.
“The experience with growers in the U.S. has been very positive,” he said.
McCaslin said the U.S. industry already takes steps to follow isolation setback distances, monitor gene flow and test for adventitious presence of Roundup Ready alfalfa in non- GM alfalfa.
The National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance (NAFA), an industry stakeholder group, contracts with the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) to carry out these practices.
This arrangement could be a model if USDA decides to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa with conditions, said McCaslin.
Rene Van Acker, a University of Guelph plant scientist, said gene flow between GM and non-GM crops occurs inevitably.
Van Acker, who also spoke at the meeting, said research shows feral (wild) alfalfa can act as a reservoir for GM alfalfa traits. Eventually, such genes can be transferred to non-GM plants. Isolation distances and herbicides are not enough to stop that.
Roundup Ready alfalfa is not slated for release in Canada, although it did receive food, feed and envi ronmental approval in 2005. Monsanto last year submitted an application to the Pest Management Regulatory Agency for label approval. Approval could take 18 to 24 months. That would permit Roundup to be sprayed on the crop if commercialized here.
McCaslin said FGI plans to grow test plots of Roundup Ready alfalfa in Eastern Canada in 2011 and 2012. They will be for forage only, not for seed.
McCaslin said FGI will not release Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada unless growers express interest in it and there’s an agreed-upon coexistence plan.
His reassurances did not satisfy Kurt Shmon, president of Imperial Seed Ltd. and an outspoken critic of Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Shmon has to test every shipment of forage seed for GM genes before he can sell it to Europe, even though the crop is not grown here. The EU has zero tolerance for GM content in imported seed.
Shmon said he would lose his EU market if Roundup Ready alfalfa came to Canada. Canada currently exports about 20 per cent of its alfalfa seed production to Europe.
“If it does come here, we’re screwed. No ifs, ands or buts,” he said.
The crop wouldn’t even have to be grown in Canada for its genes to show up here, Shmon added. They could arrive in seed shipments from the U.S., despite screening to detect contamination. Or they could come in combines and seeding equipment, which travel freely between Canada and the U.S.
“There’s many ways for this gene to be transferred without even growing it here.”
MFSA is on the record as opposing Roundup Ready alfalfa. It says Ottawa should compensate growers if Canada loses export sales because of it. [email protected]
– KURT SHMON, IMPERIAL SEED