A tiny, genetically modified seed is pitting Quebec farmers against the biotech industry.
A GM version of alfalfa, a staple in livestock feed, was supposed to be launched in Canada this year. The product, produced with technology by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed-and-chemical company, has already been approved by the federal government. But after protests across the country, farmers learned in March that the controversial seed won’t be here for at least another year.
Farmer Marcel Groleau is relieved. He and his brother raise 100 dairy cows in Thetford Mines, and he was worried that GM alfalfa would spread beyond the few farms that might decide to grow it and contaminate conventional and organic farms across Quebec.
High-protein alfalfa, a kind of hay, is one of the most important crops in this province, used to feed livestock and dairy animals, says Groleau, who is president of the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec (UPA).
Genetically altered seeds — the DNA of which has been engineered to resist such threats as pesticides, disease, or environmental conditions — are a growing phenomenon in farms across the globe. Canada already permits GM soybeans, canola and livestock corn, and is considering giving the green light to GM apples and salmon.
GM alfalfa is already grown on some U.S. farms.
U.S.-based Monsanto and Forage Genetics International (which created the GM alfalfa varieties using Monsanto’s technology) delayed issuing licences for the seed in Canada after protests in Montreal, Lévis, Quebec City and 35 communities in other provinces. One of the largest marketers of dairy products in the United States, Land O’ Lakes Inc., owns Forage Genetics.
In this province, the resistance to introducing GM alfalfa has been particularly strong.
“The UPA isn’t against genetically modified seeds in general, but we voted unanimously — for two years in a row — that commercialization of GM alfalfa should be prohibited,” says Groleau.
The Quebec Federation of Milk Producers, the Quebec Federation of Organic Agriculture, the Filière biologique du Québec and the UPA recently declared that they “strongly deplore” the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s approval of GM alfalfa varieties in April 2013.
The widespread resistance among farmers and seed companies is one reason that the seed won’t be released this year, says Victor Lefebvre, Quebec director of Pickseed, a company that had planned to sell GM alfalfa.
“The seed is very, very close to market, but nobody is ready to jump on it,” he says.
Six other seed companies (Synagri, Growmark, Quality Seeds, Pride Seeds, DuPont Pioneer, and La Coop fédérée) were lined up to sell GM alfalfa in Quebec or other provinces.
The tiny seed contains a gene that resists a Monsanto herbicide called glyphosate, or Roundup. Farmers plant the GM alfalfa and spray fields with Roundup, which kills every plant except the Roundup-resistant alfalfa, also known as Roundup Ready alfalfa. The seed-chemical combo is a fast way of weeding.
Pickseed’s Lefebvre says that some farmers have been begging him for two years to buy it, because they plant 100-per-cent alfalfa and like the weed management. “These farmers have three to five silos: one for alfalfa, one for grasses, one for silage corn and so on,” he explains. Using GM alfalfa leads to hay that contains more accurate ratios of weed-free alfalfa that farmers mix with other livestock food.
However, most conventional farmers plant alfalfa along with other grasses.
“Farmers would need new investment — new silos — if they wanted to grow only GM alfalfa and keep everything separated,” he says. “It could cost a lot more to produce.”
“It’s always about money,” he says. “I don’t know if GM alfalfa will be like GM corn. It took many years to get going, and finally, when it started, within five years, everything was Roundup Ready corn — not everything, but almost. Same thing with GM soybeans.”
But the controversy isn’t only about money. Farmers are worried that GM alfalfa could put many Quebec organic farms, and in particular dairy farms, out of business.
“Organic farms are very much against it, because GM alfalfa might spread, and it’s a perennial, too,” Lefebvre says, meaning it comes back its own each year.
Quebec is the most important milk producer in the country. Approximately 70 per cent of Canada’s dairy industry thrives in Quebec and Ontario, with Quebec providing most of Canada’s organic milk as well, and it’s a booming market.
“We’ve developed this niche here,” Groleau says. “That’s why the issue is more important here than in other provinces.”
In 2012, Canadian organic markets grew to $3.7 billion, tripling since 2006 and far outpacing the growth rate of other agri-food sectors.
“Organic farmers will suffer significant commercial losses because GM contamination means they won’t comply with Canadian Organic Standards,” Groleau explains.
The biotech industry has responded to concerns by saying that GM alfalfa won’t spread if farmers co-operate to contain it.
The Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA), an Ottawa-based lobbyist for Forage Genetics, Monsanto and other biotech companies, has released “A Coexistence Plan for Alfalfa Hay in Eastern Canada,” saying that GM-alfalfa fields can coexist in the same regions as conventional and organic fields. The plan lists 17 “best-management practices” to prevent cross-contamination, including mowing wild alfalfa from roadsides and ditches, cleaning machinery and equipment, and talking to neighbours to find out who’s growing GM alfalfa.
But Groleau says mowing and cleaning aren’t realistic.
“Because of environmental rules in Quebec, we’re not supposed to mow roadsides and ditches,” he says. “We’re supposed to let vegetation grow along riverbanks. It’s one way to limit soil erosion into rivers.”
“And cleaning machinery is feasible, but it’s a lot of work,” Groleau adds. “Using best practices, yes, most producers would do it. But, in reality, it won’t always be possible to clean machinery well, because of constraints of temperature, climate and other factors.”
It doesn’t help that alfalfa seeds are only about two millimetres long and hard to see.
However, the biotech industry is working on a second document — a “stewardship agreement” for alfalfa — that could prevent contamination.
Farmers will have to sign the stewardship agreement before buying or planting the seed. The agreement will likely include a list of things that a farmer should do to prevent the spread of the GM seed.
“The stewardship agreement will be a contract between farmers, Forage Genetics and patent-owner Monsanto,” explains Erick Lutterotti, general manager of Gold Medal Seeds, a subsidiary of Forage Genetics that registered the GM alfalfa varieties in Canada.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is also involved with the agreement.
Neither Monsanto, Forage Genetics or Land O’Lakes returned phone calls seeking an interview, but Stephen Denys, a former CSTA president and vice-president with Pride Seeds, says, “Given the history in the U.S., I don’t think we’ll see issues with contamination if people follow the coexistence plan and the stewardship agreement.”
But in spite of similar documents in the U.S., GM alfalfa did spread there. Last summer, a farmer’s alfalfa hay in Washington state was rejected for export because it was contaminated with GM alfalfa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had approved the seed after being assured by the biotech industry that it likely wouldn’t spread.
Groleau says he has no doubt that GM alfalfa will spread, no matter what agreements farmers sign with Monsanto.
“What I’ve heard from specialists is that it will spread because of bees and water,” he said. “Also, in Quebec, we have small farms, which means you can’t easily isolate one farm from another. It would be almost impossible to prevent any cross-contamination and cross-pollination.”
He points to GM flax, which spread to non-GMO fields in Canada in 2009. This country was a world leader in production and export, and the contamination cleanup cost millions of dollars for farmers and the Canadian government.
A similar situation happened with canola contamination between 1995 and 1998. Even with strict controls in Canada, GM canola escaped. Now, more than 97 per cent of Canada’s canola is GM, and most organic farmers don’t bother trying to grow it because GMOs aren’t allowed in organic food.
“If professional seed growers can’t control GM seeds, it’s not reasonable to expect the general population of farmers to control it,” says Lucy Sharratt, coordinator at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a coalition of 17 organizations.
She says that last fall, two Ontario farmers made a plea to Ontario’s Environment Ministry, officially asking for an assessment of GM alfalfa under the Environmental Bill of Rights. The ministry refused, noting that the issue was under federal jurisdiction. Quebec has taken a similar, non-committal approach but has unofficially expressed concerns, Groleau says.
“Incredibly, there’s still no consultation with farmers or consumers, at any level of government, before GM seeds are approved,” CBAN’s Lucy Sharratt says. “The federal and provincial governments are so obviously failing Canadians on the issue of GM foods and crops.”
She is calling for the federal government to conduct a full assessment of the environmental, economic and social impacts. And, she said, it should talk to farmers.
Source: The Gazette