The issue of GMO alfalfa is a hot topic in Canada these days, especially considering the series of protests planned for tomorrow, April 9th, across the country. There’s been a lot of hype around the issue, but here I’ll try to boil it down to a few key points:
- The End of Organic Farming? Some people claim that the approval of RoundUp Ready (RR) alfalfa will spell the end of organic farming. In my opinion, this statement is overblown. It is true that alfalfa is a very important crop for organic farmers, and losing the option to grow this crop would cause hardship and inconvenience to many farmers. But this scenario is not likely to play out: despite over 15 years of GMO corn and soybean production, it is still possible for organic farmers to grow these crops, and it is still possible to find uncontaminated seed for these crops. GMO alfalfa has been grown in the US since 2011, and there hasn’t been significant negative impacts on organic farmers yet.
Having said this, the approval of GMO alfalfa would likely increase direct and indirect costs for farmers, including organic farmers, who wished, or were required to maintain a GMO-free status, since they would need to make extra efforts to source non-GMO seeds. This would be a particular concern for sprout growers.
- Contamination The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) has produced a report entitled “The Inevitability of Contamination from GM Alfalfa Release in Ontario” It does a thorough job of describing the risks and routes of possible contamination of non-GMO alfalfa seed from RR alfalfa, based on real-world situations. Too many proponents of this crop tend to focus on the theory and protocols of crop and seed production, rather than considering what happens “down on the farm.” And given the track record of the biotech industry with respect to every other GM crop, “inevitable” is an apt term.
- Market Impact As the report cited above also points out, Canada exports much of its alfalfa production to countries which are either reject GMO products outright, or are hesitant to accept them: the approval of GMO alfalfa and the inevitable contamination that will occur poses a significant threat to these markets. Canadian consumers are also likely to express strong reservations about consuming alfalfa sprouts grown from GMO-contaminated seed – it strikes much “closer to home” than other GMO crops currently on the market.
- Declining Benefits, Increasing Risks Do we really want or need this technology? To date, forage stands, including alfalfa, are rarely, if ever, sprayed with any herbicide. Marketing a GMO alfalfa will certainly benefit the seed companies and the herbicide manufacturers and retailers, but the number of farmers benefiting from this technology will be relatively small compared to the number who will experience added costs, more headaches, decreased options, and lost markets.
Furthermore, RoundUp Ready technology is already failing across the continent as a growing number of weeds develop glyphosate resistance. Adding another glyphosate-tolerant crop to the mix can only increase application of the herbicide, thereby increasing selective pressure for resistant weeds. It would reasonable to consider this an outdated technology that is becoming irrelevant, and it’s little wonder that the seed company would be pushing for registration: they need to recoup their investment in the crop while there’s still some demand for it.
It’s also worth noting that the herbicide RoundUp and its active ingredient glyphosate, are coming under growing scrutiny for their negative impacts on environmental and human health.
- United Opposition Along with the “usual suspects” of organic farmers, organizations, and consumer groups who have been traditionally opposed to all GMO crops, there are a number of “mainstream” agricultural organizations urging the Canadian government to deny or delay the registration of RR alfalfa seed varieties. The Dairy Farmers of Canada and Quebec’s largest general farm organization, the UPA, have both expressed their concerns regarding cross-contamination, co-existence, and loss of markets.
Comparing the costs, risks and benefits of this particular product, it’s easy to understand why it is generating such widespread opposition. It’s something that the vast majority of farmers either don’t need or don’t want. Some may argue that the principle of “choice” and “free markets” should be paramount: that the seed should be registered for sale, and then “let the market decide” if there’s demand for it. This perspective may be valid for ordinary widgets, but when we’re talking about biological organisms with the ability to spread and proliferate once released into the environment, we need to invoke a higher standard. GM alfalfa, if approved, will affect the choices, markets, and livelihoods of farmers across Canada for a timeframe that could extend well beyond the useful life of the product. Why take such a great risk for so little in return?