Alfalfa growers who export to Europe or China, or sell to organic farmers, would lose income if their crops are cross-contaminated with GM alfalfa, the National Farmers Union is warning
EXCERPT: ”Co-existence of GM alfalfa with natural alfalfa is a non-starter. It is impossible in our growing environment," [Brenda Hsueh, a member of the NFU-Ontario Grey County local board] said.
GM alfalfa a threat to exports: NFU
By Scott Dunn
Sun Times, Owen Sound, April 12, 2017
Alfalfa growers who export to Europe or China, or sell to organic farmers, would lose income if their crops are cross-contaminated with genetically modified alfalfa, as their unmodified crops inevitably will, the National Farmers Union is warning.
Alfalfa, a component in hay, is grown all over Grey-Bruce by pretty much all farmers who feed hay to grazing animals, including dairy and beef cattle, sheep and goats, said Brenda Hsueh, a member of the NFU-Ontario Grey County local board.
"The inevitable contamination of all alfalfa with GM traits would handicap growing organic dairy and meat industries, as well as block hay and alfalfa seed productions from being sold into international markets," the NFU said in a news release last week.
Hsueh, an organic market gardener near Chesley, said she had no idea how many farmers this affects, locally or otherwise.
If alfalfa becomes crossed with GM alfalfa, organic farmers will have to find a substitute, although there's no obvious alternative, she said. Alfalfa is a legume which adds protein to hay, which can also include clovers and grasses.
She pointed to Canadian flax seed which was shut out of the European Union in 2010 when a genetically modified variety of flax that was to have been eliminated 10 years prior showed up in shipments.
Ray Robertson, based in Markdale, is manager of the Ontario Forage Council and is chair and a founding director of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, representing forage producers across the country.
He knows of one Grey County farmer who planted GM alfalfa last year. There was limited seed available and it was a lot more expensive, he noted.
"For the most part, most growers aren't really in favour of it. They've basically got to be growing a pure alfalfa crop to really benefit from it . . . Most are growing a grass mixture."
He said for hay to be exported it has to be double-compacted to make export profitable. The newly formed Ontario Hay and Forage Co-operative is looking at a business plan for setting up such facilities in Ontario. "Certainly I think there's interest among some producers to target that market. And the demand for hay export in those areas is growing all the time."
But those growing markets, which include the UAE, Saudi Arabia, China, and also Europe, will not buy hay that is genetically modified, he said.
Farmers who don't export or sell to organic growers might not mind if ultimately there's no unmodified alfalfa left, Hsueh said.
The genetically modified seed is sold under the name HARV-XTRA and is a product of Monsanto and Forage Genetics International. It was first sold in Canada last year, in Ontario and eastward. It is not available west of Ontario so far.
It's the first perennial field crop to be made Roundup herbicide-tolerant through genetic modifications, meaning spraying fields kills weeds but leaves alfalfa, she said.
That increases yields, and farmers can also reduce the number of hay cuts because the plant remains less woody longer, and so more palatable to animals, than unmodified alfalfa which has to be cut sooner, Hsueh said.
The jury is still out on whether genetically modified crops, including Roundup-ready alfalfa, pose any possibility of harm to human health, she said. There's not enough information to be sure, she said.
The NFU, which represents family farms, says over time all of the genetically unmodified alfalfa will be contaminated through cross-pollination by insects. As a perennial, it returns year after year, making it tough to eliminate as well.
"Our moisture levels from rain and humidity are uncontrollable, so harvest windows can't be guaranteed. So how is the isolation of GM alfalfa crops from non-GM alfalfa crops even possible?" Hsueh said.
"Co-existence of GM alfalfa with natural alfalfa is a non-starter. It is impossible in our growing environment," Hsueh said.
Prof. Rene Van Acker, the dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph University, who is quoted in the release, said in an emailed response to questions that "absolute containment" of genetically modified alfalfa "is not possible".
He said this is known from experiences with canola "and this may be even more true with an insect pollinated and robust perennial species like alfalfa. And as such one needs to plan for impacts that may result from the unintended presence of GM alfalfa."
The NFU raised concerns last spring with Liberal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay.
MacAulay wrote back "socio-economic factors, including the impact on trade of authorizing the release of a GM plant, are not a consideration of environmental safety assessments, as this is outside the legal authority of the Seeds Act and Seeds Regulations."
He cited the best management practices set out by the Canadian Seed Trade Association, which the NFU says are unworkable, but which he said would allow all GM and unmodified alfalfa operations to co-exist.
Crosby Devitt, executive director of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, said his organization can't warrant against cross-contamination but it has developed best practices to avoid it. The organization doesn't promote one product over another, he added. It represents seed companies and others.
The best practices include a requirement of farmers who plant the genetically modified seed that the alfalfa be cut before a certain percentage of the crop has flowered, to avoid cross-pollination. Clear labelling of seed and cleaning out of seed equipment are among other measures.
None of the GM alfalfa is allowed to grow to seed under the management rules farmers must agree to, said Devitt, who spoke from Calgary but farms near Ripley, in Bruce County.