Genetically modified alfalfa protested by Canadian farmers

The National Farmers Union and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network are set to rally today against the possible introduction of genetically modified alfalfa in Canada.
Farmers protest genetically modified alfalfa outside the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto on Tuesday. Dozens of similar protests were held across Canada. (John Rieti/CBC News)

The National Farmers Union and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network rallied Tuesday against the possible introduction of genetically modified alfalfa in Canada.

Genetically modified alfalfa was approved for health and environmental release in Canada in 2005, but any variety must be registered before it can be commercially released.

To date, no genetically modified alfalfa varieties are registered with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Thirteen demonstrations were planned for Ontario between noon and 1 p.m. ET.

About four dozen farmers demonstrated at the CFIA national headquarters in Nepean, Ont.

Paul Slomp was one of them.

"We have to ask ourselves who is making the decisions around what kind of food we eat. And what concerns me is if farmers don't want it and if eaters don't want it, why on earth is this being legitimized and being commercialized in Canada," Slomp told CBC News.

Organic farmers fearful

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network claims U.S. company Forage Genetics International wants to release alfalfa seeds with Monsanto’s genetically modified herbicide tolerant technology, called Roundup Ready, in Canada this year.

The NFU says Roundup Ready alfalfa will become another weed. Roundup Ready alfalfa has been approved for planting in the U.S. since 2011.

"We’re struggling to find even one farmer in our area who wants to use this GM alfalfa. Most farmers will pay dearly if GM alfalfa is allowed onto the market," said Hilary Moore, an organic farmer who is president of the Lanark National Farmers Union Local 310.

Murray Bunnett, of New Brunswick, has farmed his entire life. Last week, he told CBC News he plans to take his concerns to Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe Conservative MP Robert Goguen.

Bunnett made the switch to organic crop production in the 1990s. He relies heavily on alfalfa in his crop rotation to help fertilize the soil. He said if a modified strain spreads to his fields, he can't guarantee his crop is organic.

"When a person trespasses on somebody else’s property and it causes damage, the property owner can seek compensation," he said. "But when the genetically modified crops trespass on farmers' land, they can't go after the company to get compensation. That's fundamentally wrong."

Monsanto disputed some of the information provided by demonstrators Tuesday.

"At this point, [Forage Genetics International] has not finalized any commercial plans for Eastern Canada but I guess maybe CBAN and the NFU are either not aware of that or have chosen to ignore the information that has been shared with them," Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan said in an email to CBC News. "From a Monsanto perspective, we are supporting FGI (our licensee) from a regulatory and stewardship perspective. 

"We have been providing bi-annual updates to farmers and industry on this file for 10-plus years and we issue these public updates in the spring and fall of each year."

Monsanto claims that organic alfalfa acres in Eastern Canada account for about 1.4 per cent of total alfalfa acreage in that region. 

"That leaves 98.6 per cent of farmers choosing non-organic production methods," Jordan said.

A rally was scheduled for 12 p.m. PT at the the Kootenay Co-op in Nelson, B.C.

Alfalfa is a high-protein feed for dairy cows, beef cattle, lambs, poultry, and pigs, but because labelling for genetically modified crops is not mandatory in Canada, it's unlikely consumers will know they are eating altered crops.

NFU-Ontario president John Sutherland told there are a number of concerns about the release of genetically modified alfalfa, including:

  • The risk of contamination of non-genetically-modified alfalfa crops and seed stocks.
  • Increased seed and herbicide costs.
  • Spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

Opinions differ

In a media release issued late Tuesday, the Grain Growers of Canada and its more than 50,000 farmer members said they support genetically modified crops.

"We support Canada’s robust science-based regulatory environment which ensures any new crops or traits are proven safe for human consumption, animal feed and our environment," the association's president, Stephen Vandervalk, said in a media release. "While we appreciate that many long-time opponents of progress have concerns, the reality is they have a lot of rhetoric, but no facts to back up their case."

According to the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, genetically modified alfalfa should present "few issues" to conventional livestock producers growing alfalfa for their own use.

The association does say that "the greatest potential negative impact of genetically-modified alfalfa would be for organic producers and seed growers, especially those that sell to the organic market or to the European Union where genetically engineered  seeds are not permitted."

With files from The Canadian Press