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All Out For Alfalfa

Farmers and GE activists struggle against Monsanto’s Alfalfa

by Miles Howe

Cammie Harbottle, youth president of the National Farmers Union, with horse. [Photo: M. Howe]
Cammie Harbottle, youth president of the National Farmers Union, with horse. [Photo: M. Howe]

TATAMAGOUCHE, NOVA SCOTIA -- Forage Genetics Inc., an Idaho-based company that has made its fortune dealing in alfalfa seeds, is very close to having a genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa seed ready for market. While the company has publicly noted it will not have its glyphosate-resistant seed (more commonly known as 'Roundup Ready', a Monsanto-patented technology whereby herbicide resistance is bred into the seed) ready for 2013 sowing, all that is standing between themselves and fields of GE alfalfa is for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to register their seed variety.

Variety registration classifies seeds as a pedigree brand, allowing them to command a market premium. It isn't a measure by which the safety – or desirability - of a product is gauged. That bridge was crossed in 2005, when Health Canada determined that GE alfalfa posed no risk to humans.

There are currently four other genetically engineered crops – canola, corn, soy and sugar beets - being grown in this country. Because Health Canada has determined that these crops also pose no health risk to humans, products that contain these genetically engineered crops do not need to disclose their presence in labelling.

Anything with high-fructose syrup or soy oil listed as ingredients – as is the case with most refined foods – likely contain GE products. We are, in a sense, all taking part in a long-term health study as to their effects. A recent French study on the effects of feeding Roundup Ready corn to lab rats produced some startling results; while the sample size has been criticized as being too small to glean causal data, tumour growth, liver congestions and kidney diseases were all higher amongst the rats that were fed GE corn.

Genetically engineered alfalfa introduces its own set of unknowns into the food system.

Aside from sprouted alfalfa seeds, the crop is not regularly consumed by humans. It is, however, known as the “Queen of forage” crops, and provides a staple in animal feed. The perennial legume is also a very popular 'green manure': its root system runs deep and is able to bring crucial minerals to the top soil.

In Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC, resistance to GE alfalfa has been fierce and has largely been framed in economic terms. Canadian exports of alfalfa seed and dehydrated alfalfa feed - largely concentrated in the prairie provinces – is consistently valued at tens of millions of dollars per year.

GE crops, when introduced, are notoriously difficult to contain. In 2009, genetically engineered flax seed - removed from commercial sale in Canada since 2001 - was found to have contaminated exports to 35 countries. Many countries such as those in the EU zone, have a zero tolerance for GE products, and those markets were subsequently shut down for export.

“The predominant concern is the contamination,” says Lucy Sharatt, coordinator with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. “There are very particular biological characteristics of alfalfa, which mean that it would be particularly difficult to manage or contain contamination.

“It's a perennial crop pollinated by bees. It has small seeds and a small, deep root structure. The fact of contamination into the future is known as inevitable. So the question then is 'What does that mean for farmers in Canada and Eastern Canada?'”

Monsanto has sought legal action against farmers who – knowingly or not - plant their patented seeds without a licence. Monsanto's website explains that those who infringe on their patents will be sued, plain and simple. This means that if Monsanto seeds contaminate a farmer’s fields, that farmer may be sued by Monsanto. This was the case with Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan farmer who did legal battle with Monsanto over the presence of GE canola on his land – and lost.

“This is why alfalfa growers, forage growers, in the prairies have been opposed to the introduction of genetically engineered alfalfa,” says Sharatt. “Because they export alfalfa and it's a very clear risk to their export market.

“That's why Forage Genetics is now focused on Eastern Canada. Because we have less of a stake in that export market, although it would alter our domestic market through the consumption of those foods.”

Recent conferences, such as that organized by the Canadian Seed Trade Association, have seen Forage Genetics switch strategies from cross-Canada acceptance to a regionally-tailored plan of attack. Rather than deal with the economic block of the large-scale Western Canadian alfalfa exporters, the company has instead chosen to focus on Eastern Canada, which accounts for a much smaller percentage of the export market.

Forage Genetics' message to the Eastern markets has been simple: There's no export market to taint. And on top of that, most of the alfalfa grown out East will never come to seed, so cross-contamination will be kept to a minimum by virtue of the fact that the crop will be harvested as a forage, before the plant invests its energy into seed production.

No seeds, no cross-contamination, no fuss.

It's an argument Cammie Harbottle, youth president of the National Farmers Union and organic farmer, doesn't buy for a second.

“The export market [in Eastern Canada] isn't as big, but I think another implication is that it affects organic certification,” says Harbottle. “If there's a farmer that is trying to feed their animals organically and is growing their own alfalfa, and cross-contamination happens, they aren't going to be able to feed their animals organic alfalfa anymore. I think it's inevitable that some seed from some plant is going to cross contaminate, and it takes so little. Even a few plants that would go to seed, rogue plants that get out of the field, would be a big risk.”

Harbottle also notes that while Eastern alfalfa isn't necessarily bound for export, there isn't a ground swell of desire – or apparent need – for a GE product, even at a local level.

“Even non-organic farmers, conventional farmers that might be growing alfalfa in their forage mix, they say there's no need for Roundup ready alfalfa,” says Harbottle. “It's not a crop that you're going to spray. You don't spray a hay crop to kill weeds.”

Historically, a precedent for the power of Canadian resistance to GE has already been set. In 2003, public pressure over the introduction of GE wheat caused Monsanto to do an about-face and withdraw their application from Paul Martin's Liberal government.

The Harper government has been awash in petitions calling for a moratorium on GE alfalfa, from both its own members and opposition MPs. In Wolfville, Nova Scotia, an April 9th day of action against genetic engineering brought out about 100 protestors, with similar actions taking place across Eastern Canada. May 25 is an international day of action against Monsanto, which will include a March against Monsanto in Halifax.

Harbottle hopes actions like these turn the tide against GE crops, Monsanto, and ultimately allows people to regain control of our food system.

“I would say that corporate control of our food system is why [GE alfalfa] is happening,” says Harbottle. “It's happening in every avenue, and it's one more seed that [Monsanto] can have control over.”

This article is part of our continuing Just Us! Just Journalism series, dealing with food security, cooperatives and sustainable farming. We thank Just Us! Coffee Roasters for a portion of the funding that made this article possible.

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