Why is Stopping GM Alfalfa Urgent?
The first variety of Monsanto’s GM alfalfa was registered in April, two weeks after the Day of Action. One GM Roundup Ready alfalfa variety has just been rubber-stamped by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The Canadian Seed Trade Association and its corporate members including Monsanto, Pioneer and Forage Genetics International are also actively trying to get support for the release of GM alfalfa. Following the Day of Action, Forage Genetics International stated that it would not sell GM alfalfa in the spring of 2013.
Because alfalfa is a perennial plant that is pollinated by bees, genetically modified alfalfa will inevitably cross-pollinate with non-GM and organic alfalfa, threatening the livelihoods of family farmers across Canada. Prairie farmers have already rejected GM alfalfa for these reasons so now the industry is trying to introduce GM alfalfa in Eastern Canada.
Why is GM Alfalfa Such a Huge Threat?
If grown commercially, GM contamination by Roundup Ready and Low Lignin genes is inevitable because alfalfa is a perennial crop pollinated by insects. In Ontario, weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup): another glyphosate tolerant crop like Roundup Ready alfalfa would increase these weeds. Alfalfa is almost always grown in a mix with grasses and establishes readily without the use of herbicides. Farmers don’t want or need Roundup Ready alfalfa. If genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered or GE) alfalfa is released in Eastern Canada, it will have negative impacts on a wide range of farmers and farming systems, both conventional and organic.
Why is Alfalfa Important?
Alfalfa (commonly harvested as hay) is a high-protein forage fed to animals like dairy cows, beef cattle, lambs, poultry and pigs. It‘s also used to build nutrients and organic matter in the soil, making it particularly important for organic farming. If it’s introduced, GM alfalfa will ruin export markets for alfalfa products, contaminate family farms, make it more difficult for farmers to control weeds, and threaten the future of organic food and farming in Canada.
In March 2016 the company, Forage Genetics International (FGI), announced its plans to sell a limited quantity of seed for its “HarvXtra” genetically modified alfalfa variety in Eastern Canada. It is resistant to glyphosate herbicide and has the low lignin trait.
In a letter, the NFU has asked Agriculture Minister MacAulay to take immediate action to stop FGI from selling the seed in Canada this spring and asked the Minister to put border controls in place to prevent importation of contaminated conventional alfalfa seed from the USA. In our subsequent press release, the NFU also urged farmers to plant only Canadian-grown alfalfa seed, which is much less likely to be contaminated.
Soon after, we learned that FGI had begun to sell the seed. A letter signed by 15 farm organizations was sent to Minister MacAulay on April 20, 2016, urging him to stop further sales by deregistering GM alfalfa varieties until a full economic assessment is done, and also to establish a protocol for testing alfalfa seed imported from the USA in light of documented contamination of non-GM seed there. Organizations were invited to sign on to the joint letter to Minister MacAulay, and individuals were invited to express their concerns by email or to phone the Minister’s Ottawa office at 613-995-9325. The Minister sent a response to the joint letter on June 16, 2016, in which he reiterated his confidence in “co-existence” and indicated he looked to the Canadian Seed Trade Association, rather than Canadian alfalfa growers as the relevant industry stakeholders on this matter.
2013 call for Environmental Assessment in Ontario
On July 25, 2013 organic dairy farmer Diane Dowling and grassfed beef producer Dave Lewington, both NFU members, formally asked the Ontario government to carry out an environmental assessment of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa before the seed is sold in the province. They launched an application under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, the first ever request relating to the issue of GM crops.
Under the Environmental Bill of Rights, Ontario residents can request an environmental assessment if they believe a major new commercial activity could negatively impact the environment and economy of Ontario. The application points out that GM contamination would be unavoidable. It also details the environmental and economic costs of herbicide resistant weeds and increased herbicide use that would result from GM Roundup Ready alfalfa. It was prepared by a large community of individuals and groups, including the NFU and Saskatchewan-based Organic Agriculture Protection Fund, who share concerns about the risks that GM alfalfa poses.
Ontario’s Environment Ministry decided against undertaking the requested review. In his 2013/14 Annual Report, Ontario’s Environment Commissioner said he was disappointed that the Ontario Ministry of the Environment failed to address the farmers’ concerns about GE alfalfa. He also called the federal safety assessment of GE crops “narrow” and “severely lacking” in transparency and an opportunity for public participation.
The initiative calling for the provincial environmental assessment was undertaken after we learned that, in spite of the Canada-wide opposition to GM alfalfa as expressed in our Day of Action (see below), the Canadian Food Inspection Agency registered one variety of GM alfalfa, WL 373HQ.RR, making it legal to sell the seed in Canada. Forage Genetics International has stated it will not start selling it until a “co-existence plan” is in place. The NFU and CBAN have produced an extensive critique of the Canadian Seed Trade Association’s proposed coexistence plan for GM alfalfa.
2013 National Day of Action
On March 2, 2013 at the NFU Region 3 Convention/NFU-Ontario AGM passed the resolution:
“Be it resolved that the National Farmers Union – Ontario call on farm organizations in Ontario and across Canada, other civil society organizations and concerned consumers to join NFU-O members in a day of action against the release of GM alfalfa to be held at MP’s constituency offices on April 9, 2013.”
38 rallies were held. In addition, individual citizens also delivered letters and petitions to their MPs, while others sent emails, made phone calls and asked for meetings. The NFU worked with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) to organize events. NFU is a member of CBAN.
Rallies in Ontario: Barrie, Belleville, Brantford, Goderich, Guelph, Hawkesbury, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Orangeville, Ottawa, Owen Sound, Port Colborne, Stratford, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Welland.
Rallies in other provinces: Wolfville NS, Moncton NB, Montreal PQ, Lévis PQ, Brandon MB, North Battleford SK, Camrose AB, Calgary AB, Edmonton AB, Grande Prairie AB, Red Deer AB, Duncan BC, Kamloops BC, Kelowna BC, Langley BC, Nelson BC, Smithers BC, Vancouver BC, Vernon BC, Victoria BC, Whitehorse YT. Plus: Film Night, April 9 in Winnipeg.
Here is a Photo Gallery with pictures from each event.
Email your MP to keep up the pressure.
Under Part IV, Environmental Bill of Rights, Ontario
Briarpatch Magazine, Sep 1, 2013
by Katherine Rothermel, NFU Member, Local 316
explaining how GM alfalfa would affect them if it is allowed to grown in Canada
Watch an educational video in which a cartoon bee explains.