Farmers say entire organic industry at risk in GM alfalfa debate

Heather Loney
Global Toronto, October 22 2012

GUELPH, Ontario – There's a new genetically modified crop on the horizon that some say is jeopardizing the entire Canadian organic farming industry.

Organic farmers across the country are sounding the alarm bells on the state of alfalfa, one small plant with a massive role in organic farming.

When most people hear the word alfalfa they generally think of sprouts they buy in the grocery store.

However, full-grown, dried alfalfa is a high-protein feed for pigs, poultry, dairy cows, beef cattle, and lambs and is used to increase the nutrients in soil.

In order to be certified organic, foods cannot be produced with genetically modified crops and chemical sprays.

The crop at the centre of this debate is Monsanto’s herbicide tolerant, genetically modified (GM) alfalfa. It has already been deregulated in the U.S. and north of the border seed growers and conventional farmers are meeting to discuss the possibility of commercializing GM alfalfa in Canada.

This November, the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA) is meeting with members of Forage Genetics International to discuss the status of herbicide tolerant alfalfa in the U.S. and Canada and develop a coexistence plan for GM alfalfa.

Critics argue that organic crops and GM crops cannot coexist, as cross-pollination of GM alfalfa to organic crops is inevitable – making organic certification impossible.

"The consensus among the food scientists is that once it's out there, it will inevitably contaminate the entire seed supply," said Ted Zettel, from the Canadian Organic Federation.

"I'm sure that I'll lose my certification," said organic dairy farmer John Brunsveld.

A spokesperson for the CSTA said they were unable to respond to questions from Global News until a "value chain workshop" on an alfalfa coexistence plan is completed. That workshop is scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

An additional worry for farmers is the loss of exports they could suffer.

Canada exports $29-million worth of alfalfa each year, often to countries where genetically modified organisms are banned.

"So many other countries have banned [GMOs] in their food system. Once our alfalfa is contaminated, there are very few countries in the world that are going to want an export of ours," said Sarah Dobec from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network's "Stop GM Alfalfa" campaign.

With that business lost, the cost of organic food could skyrocket. With fewer locally grown organic products available for sale, Canada would need to increase imports in order to meet demand.

These effects may force organic farmers to close up shop or change their definitions of what makes something organic.

"I don't think we can have an organic industry without growing alfalfa," said Zettel. "It won't be the industry that we have now because we're so dependent on it for livestock feed."

Several grassroots groups are rallying to raise awareness for the issue. This Wednesday, the National Farmers Union will hold a protest in Kitchener, Ont., in order to stop plans to introduce GM alfalfa in Ontario.