Western seed industry worried about Roundup Ready alfalfa

Efforts to commercialize genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready alfalfa in Eastern Canada can’t be done without harming forage seed exports from Western Canada, according Manitoba forage seed officials.

"I’m very concerned because I do not believe there’s any way to restrict the seed to eastern Canada," Kurt Shmon, president of Winnipeg-based Imperial Seed, said in an interview Oct 26. "There’s just no way to do it."

Kelvin Einarson, a forage seed farmer near Hnausa, Man., agrees. Both made their case Oct. 24 at a workshop in Kitchener, Ont., hosted by the Canadian Seed Trade Association looking for ways to allow Roundup Ready alfalfa production in Eastern Canada to co-exist with organic and conventional production.

Although Roundup Ready is approved in Canada, Forage Genetics International, the firm licensed by Monsanto to sell the seed, has agreed to consult with the industry before commercialization.

"The meeting was about (introducing Roundup Ready alfalfa in) Eastern Canada and it’s very clear the West is different so this was a meeting about the east," Canadian Seed Grower Association president Stephen Denys said in an interview. "When either the participants in the western business or the commercializing companies want to talk about the West, either way, the West will have to be tackled on its own."

Opposed to commercialization

Einarson, who is a member of the Manitoba Forage Seed Association, was there representing Forage Seed Canada, an umbrella group that speaks for provincial forage seed associations. Western forage seed farmers and processors oppose commercializing Roundup Ready alfalfa, even if restricted to the east, he said.

"Once it’s introduced into Canada it’s eventually going to make its way into the forage seed producing areas," Einarson said.

If it is kept out of Canada, there are opportunities to expand exports to markets such as Europe and Japan that want GM-free seed. The U.S. is unable to assure customers of non-GM supplies.

The risks to Canada’s alfalfa export markets aren’t justified by the benefits, Shmon said. "When Canada is such an exporting nation I do not understand why we want to paint ourselves into a corner," he said. "It’s not worth the risk."

Denys said some of the risk is mitigated by restricting GM alfalfa production to the East, which is far away from Western alfalfa seed fields. Most of the alfalfa grown in the East is farm-fed.
Strict contracts would discourage eastern farmers from selling the seed to western farmers, he said.

As well, cutting GM alfalfa before it flowers prevents its genes from spreading to non-GM fields, Denys said. Feral alfalfa isn’t as widespread in the east as it is in the West.

The next step is for the workshop’s consultants to work on "best management" practices to avoid the spread of Roundup Ready alfalfa if it’s introduced in Eastern Canada.

It’s important for the industry to develop a co-existence protocol for future GM crops, Denys said.

"Ultimately it’s up to commercializing company," he said. "It’s not the decision of the seed association or the stakeholders. The commercializing companies have indicated very strongly that they will not bring it into the market here until the co-existence plan is in place."

Risks too high

It will be nearly impossible to prevent Roundup Ready alfalfa from spreading, Einarson said. Alfalfa is a perennial crop and, at least in the West, grows feral almost everywhere. And while farmers might intend on cutting their alfalfa before it blooms weather can easily delay it, he said.

Volunteering Roundup Ready alfalfa is another concern as is the increase in Roundup Ready resistance weeds, Einarson said. Most farmers include grasses when they seed alfalfa for hay. The means they won’t grow Roundup Ready because spraying with field with glyphosate would kill those grasses, he said.

"If we can keep our (alfalfa) seed (GM) free until such time as our markets accept the Roundup Ready gene, then fine, we can start producing it here, but until that time I’d like to see us keep it out."
Denys noted Roundup Alfalfa being produced now in the western U.S. already closer than production in eastern Canada would be.

In 2011 a field of Roundup Ready alfalfa was discovered on a Saskatchewan Hutterite Colony. Although Roundup Ready alfalfa is approved in Canada, the colony didn’t have a license to grow it, since it’s not available for commercial sale in Canada, Monsanto spokesperson Trish Jordan said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency oversaw the crop’s destruction, which was less than 20 acres in size, she said.The field was monitored in 2012 for volunteer alfalfa. Since the farmer co-operated fully, Monsanto didn’t sue the Colony for unlicensed and unauthorized use of its technology, Jordan said.

Allan Dawson is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator

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