Dairy farmers ask for delay of GM alfalfa registration

Registration of genetically modified alfalfa should be delayed until next year so a “coexistence” plan can be completed, says Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Roundup Ready alfalfa has become a cause célèbre for anti-GM groups, which say its cultivation will make it impossible for growers of organic alfalfa to stay in business because their crops will be contaminated by the GM variety.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association is trying to address such concerns, and until its work is complete, registration should be held back, Dairy Farmers president Wally Smith stated in a recent letter to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

But the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network contends contamination is inevitable.

“While the conditions for contamination in Eastern Canada differ from those in Western Canada where alfalfa seed is produced, contamination in Ontario is assured, as are the economic costs to farmers,” said Lucy Sharratt, a spokeswoman for the organization.

“The only question is how long it will take and which will be the first or primary means of gene escape.”

Roundup Ready alfalfa, already approved in the U.S., has only been approved for test plots in Canada so far. The developer of the GM variety, Monsanto, has not yet decided on when it might start selling it in Canada, said spokeswoman Trish Jordan.

“The priority and focus for 2013 remains the U.S. market,” she said.

The main market here would be in Ontario and Quebec, because those province’s account for 70 per cent of dairy production and that sector is the primary buyer of alfalfa hay.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association says the plan being drafted by its experts “does not advocate for or against the commercialization of GM alfalfa. Nor does it favour one production system over another. This plan strives to anticipate the future. Its purpose is to identify clear practices that will allow all alfalfa hay production systems to be successful in Eastern Canada.”

The plan would include using buffer zones or other physical barriers to prevent contamination of non-GM varieties. Organic alfalfa is estimated to be 2.4 per cent of total Canadian alfalfa production, and is mainly sold to organic milk producers.

Alfalfa hay is pollinated by insects and not wind-borne pollen, a report from the seed trade association notes.

Volunteer alfalfa plants in successive crops will have to be dealt with through the development of appropriate best management practices, the report states.

“In Eastern Canada, few alfalfa plants are found outside of the field, and feral alfalfa is not expected to be a major risk for GM gene flow.”

In addition to Roundup Ready alfalfa, a GM variety with reduced lignin — which increases fibre digestibility — has been developed by Forage Genetics International.

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