Will it or won’t it? Producers discuss Roundup Ready alfalfa

Customer preferences should count when assessing new technology

It’s become a perennial issue for forage seed growers. Will or won’t Roundup Ready alfalfa be released in Canada?

The question loomed large at the Manitoba Forage Seed Association’s annual conference in Winnipeg last week, where the issue was raised no less than four times.

“We basically feel that there isn’t a need for it, our market for alfalfa is strong because we don’t have Roundup Ready alfalfa,” said association president, Kyle Willis. “We feel that it’s going to ruin the seed market for alfalfa.”

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But he added that the association isn’t taking issue with the science behind the genetically engineered crop, rather its concern is with market acceptance.

That sentiment was echoed by Kurt Shmon, president of Winnipeg-based Imperial Seed.

“As a seed company, our take is that we want market acceptance prior to its release, and by market acceptance, I mean the European Union accepting it, Russia accepting it, China and so on and so forth. A lot of the seed we produce in Canada moves into those markets,” he said.

Sales affected

Both pointed to issues in the United States, where Roundup Ready alfalfa contamination issues have affected international seed and hay sales. Monsanto has been targeted by several lawsuits south of the border related to the release of the genetically engineered seed.

Forage Genetics International has registered Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada and is able to legally sell it. But so far the company has stuck to test plots in Quebec and Ontario.

Willis believes lobbying by groups such as the Manitoba Forage Seed Association has helped companies realize that releasing the seed will be extremely detrimental to producers, sellers and exporters.

But other than work to convince companies to hold off on releasing the modified seed, the seed grower isn’t sure there is much more that can be done.

“The government hasn’t really said it’s taken a position on it, other than that it has allowed registration of varieties,” Willis said. “But just like any other GMO, if they meet guidelines they can be registered, it’s just whether a company distributes it, and most companies realize the consequences if they do, so we’re kind of hoping the companies will see the bigger picture.”

However, others would like to see the Canadian government do more to protect the interests of producers when it comes to the registration of new genetically engineered crops.

“The biggest disconnect that exists, is that our science-based decision pro-cess does not take economic harm to existing markets into consideration, there is no requirement to look at market impacts,” said Shmon, adding the government could change that, if there was a political will to do so.

Where’s the demand?

He also questions where the demand for the introduction of this product is coming from.

“Currently there are claims, and I use the word claims, that there are some producers asking for this product in Eastern Canada. I myself have been in the industry since 1986, in the public eye since 1991 and have been very vocal on the roundup since 2008 and I have yet to have a producer come up and tell me that this is a fit for their farm,” he said.

What it comes down to for Shmon and others, is providing what the consumer wants, regardless of why they want it.

“In China they are saying, well it’s all political, well it doesn’t matter what it is. The truth is that you can’t ship it there,” he said. “So if it’s a political reason, or if it’s a health reason, or whatever they choose, you still can’t ship it there, it’s just that plain and simple, so what matters to us is what the customer wants, and if the customer wants it, you have to supply it.”

And judging from the current situation in the U.S., that won’t be possible if Roundup Ready alfalfa is released in Canada.

“The longer we keep it out, the better,” Willis said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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