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RR Alfalfa Sparks Debate At CSTA

“All it takes is one plot.”

– LES JACOBSON, MFSA

European forage seed companies are starting to require official testing and GM-free certification from Canadian exporters because of the existence of Roundup Ready alfalfa in test plots.

“We are aware of Roundup Ready alfalfa trials in Canada and (are) therefore not happy, since Europe has not approved this,” said Adger Banken, export and procurement manager with DLF Trifolium, a European grass seed company.

“Therefore we ask our Canadian suppliers (to guarantee shipments) free of GMO and ask them to test this at an official lab and send us the certificate prior to shipment.

“We have to have this official test certificate, as this is a demand from our insurance company; it is a liability issue,” he said in a recent e-mail correspondence with the Manitoba Co-operator from the Netherlands.

Banken said European forage seed buyers are not refusing to buy Canadian forage seed “but more and more customers are asking for a statement free of GMO.”

Kurt Shmon, president of Imperial Seeds (1979) Ltd. in Winnipeg, said providing a certificate adds $100 to the cost of an export seed lot.

ADDED COSTS

“We’re dealing with a market where we’re looking at depressed prices and everyone’s pinching the nickel to make a buck. It’s an added cost,” said Shmon, whose company sells 60 per cent of its alfalfa seed to Europe.

Shmon said the possibility of cross-contaminated alfalfa seeds also showing up in other forage seed shipments to Europe is a “huge” concern.

“It’s very easy that we could end up having contamination of alfalfa in a trefoil sample going across to Europe. Or in timothy. Or in a turf grass. This is a problem that isn’t just going to be an alfalfa problem,” said Shmon, who introduced the resolution at the CSTA committee meeting. “That’s the real kicker.”

Shmon said he isn’t against GM alfalfa technology itself. But he doesn’t want it introduced before the market is ready, which, in the case of Europe, it is not.

“What we want is the horse to be in front of the cart. We don’t want this to be the same as what canola was. We want market acceptance for a low level of tolerance prior to releasing this in Canada.”

ACCOUNTABILITY

The Canadian Seed Trade Association will be debating a resolution at this week’s semi-annual meeting in Montreal calling on the industry to hold federal regulators accountable if Roundup Ready alfalfa jeopardizes Canada’s alfalfa seed exports to Europe.

The resolution, which was narrowly adopted by the CSTA’s forage and turf committee recently in Kansas City, calls on the industry to hold the Canadian Food Inspection Agency “directly responsible for any and all losses on forage and turf seed species incurred by the Canadian seed trade.”

At present, Roundup Ready alfalfa, a genetically modified forage crop, is not commercially available in Canada. A variety has not yet been submitted to CFIA for registration.

But Roundup Ready alfalfa did receive food, feed and environmental approval by CFIA and Health Canada in 2005.

Monsanto holds the patent to the Roundup Ready alfalfa trait. Forage Genetics International, an Idaho-based alfalfa breeder, is licensed to produce the seed.

RESEARCH PLOTS

For the last two years, Monsanto has conducted research trials in Western Canada for data to support the necessary herbicide label to use Roundup on Roundup Ready alfalfa, should Forage Genetics decide to commercialize the crop in Canada.

The company has 12 research plots, four in each of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Monsanto says it has finished the trials and is destroying the plots.

“The trials are completed, Monsanto is in the process of terminating the stands and now we’re working on analyzing the data and preparing the regulatory submission for label review,” said Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada’s public affairs director.

But the existence of these plots has created a stir in the forage seed industry, which fears genetic cross-contamination between Roundup Ready alfalfa and non-GM varieties.

Opposition is particularly strong among forage seed producers because the European Union, a major forage seed importer from Canada, has a zero-tolerance policy toward GM genes in seed.

“If you’re an agricultural person, you know that contamination on a perennial crop is going to occur on something like alfalfa,” said Leslie Jacobson, Manitoba Forage Seed Association president. “All it takes is one plot.”

CHILL

The recent request to provide GM-free certification from Canadian exporters is sending a chill through the Canadian industry, which sells between $16 million and $20 million worth of alfalfa seed to Europe annually.

Jacobson compared Roundup Ready alfalfa to CDC Triffid, a genetically modified Canadian flax which was de-registered in 2001. Traces of Triffid showed up unexpectedly this summer in flax shipments to Germany. Because of Europe’s zero-tolerance policy, flax sales and prices were hit hard.

The same thing happening with Roundup Ready alfalfa would be even more serious because flax is an annual crop and alfalfa is a perennial, Jacobson said.

“We can’t even get rid of the product on a year-to-year basis.”

Monsanto maintains there is little risk of pollen-mediated gene flow from Roundup Ready alfalfa to non-GM alfalfa because test plots are isolated and the forage is harvested before flowering.

But recent research at the University of Manitoba suggests feral (wild) alfalfa, common throughout the province, may act as a reservoir for novel genetic traits such as GM alfalfa.

GENE FLOW

The research by PhD student Muthukumar Bagavathiannan detected gene flow between commercial and feral alfalfa in several southern Manitoba locations. It concluded maintaining GM-free alfalfa after introducing GM alfalfa would be difficult.

“Management is necessary because, for sure, these populations will interact with the cultivated populations,” said Bagavathiannan’s adviser Rene Van Acker, who is currently at the University of Guelph.

“It’s possible to maintain a low level but, in a commercial situation, zero is probably not possible.”

However, other research by Allen Van Deynze, a biotechnology specialist at the University of California (Davis), found the risk of gene flow less than claimed.

“It is clear that pollen-mediated gene flow decreases exponentially with distance,” Van Deynze wrote in a 2004 paper.

He suggested crossing Roundup Ready alfalfa with feral alfalfa “may not be a major issue, since these fields are typically harvested in the pre-bud to mid-flower stage of development; thus little pollen flows and few viable seeds are set (typically none).” [email protected]

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