alfalfa GM A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo: Kurt Shmon

FOR MOST OF US, our primary connection to our food system is what we had for dinner last night. It’s what we get at the grocery store, our local farmers markets or in our CSA baskets. It’s what we stock in our kitchen cupboards and put on our plates and in our bodies every single day. 

But there is a hidden story beneath the ingredients that go into our meals. It’s a story about what it takes to make those ingredients. It’s about an unsung hero that few of us recognize or ever think about. This crop, which most of us know better as hay bales scattered across rural landscapes, is essential to grain, vegetable, dairy and livestock farming across Canada.

Alfalfa, or the “queen of forages” as it is affectionately called, is one of the most widely grown crops in Canada. In 2011, alfalfa was cultivated on more than 10 million hectares across the country, or almost 30 per cent of Canada’s cropland. More than 80 per cent of it was in the three prairie provinces, another eight per cent was in Ontario, and the rest was grown in Québec and British Columbia. 

Alfalfa is an indispensible ingredient in many farming systems. Cattle and beef farmers use hay or haylage from alfalfa as a high-quality feed for their animals. So do sheep farmers, and sometimes horse ranchers as well. Grain and crop farmers include alfalfa in their crop rotations to build nitrogen levels and maintain soil fertility, prevent erosion, increase aeration and outcompete weeds. These qualities make alfalfa particularly important for organic growers, who do not use chemical herbicides or nitrogen fertilizers. In fact, in 2009, alfalfa was grown on 38 per cent of all organic acreage in the country. 

To improve its feed value, palatability and the life of the stand, alfalfa is often grown with other perennial grasses. It is planted in pure stands only when it is being grown for seed production, or to produce dehydrated, processed products. Canadian alfalfa seed and processed alfalfa are both important exports. In fact, Canada is one of the five largest exporters of alfalfa pellets and cubes in the world. Most of our alfalfa products travel to Japan, the US, the EU, UAE, South Korea and Taiwan.

In 2005, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada approved seed giant Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM – also called genetically engineered) Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA) for environmental release, animal feed and human consumption. RRA is herbicide resistant, which means that it does not die when it is sprayed (in this case, with Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide, Roundup). The herbicide kills other plants in the field, leaving the GM alfalfa crop standing. Although Monsanto owns RRA, a US company called Forage Genetics International (FGI) holds marketing and distribution rights for the crop. There are currently no varieties of GM alfalfa on the market anywhere in the country, but FGI now wants to introduce RRA in Eastern Canada.

The timeline for RRA’s commercialization remains uncertain. However, in April 2013, one RRA variety was given “variety registration” by the CFIA, the final step needed to sell the seed in Canada. This registration process is considered confidential business information, and did not call for any consultation with those who stand to be affected, and those who are arguably the experts on the subject – farmers. 

If farmers’ voices and expertise were, in fact, built into the decision-making process for RRA, the outcome might be quite different. Forage seed grower Kelvin Einarson from Riverton, Manitoba, outlines the issue very plainly: “Co-existence between genetically modified or herbicide-tolerant forage seed varieties and conventional varieties will be impossible, even with the most stringent and sound agronomic practices.”  

Alfalfa is an out-crossing, perennial plant that is pollinated by insects. These characteristics make it particularly susceptible to gene flow from one plant to another. GM contamination from RRA can occur through three primary routes – seed, pollinators and feral or volunteer alfalfa. There is another common thread between all those categories: They are virtually impossible to control. What this means is that if RRA is commercialized, the flow of genes and traits from GM to non-GM alfalfa will be inevitable and irreversible. Farmers who wish to grow non-GM alfalfa, use it as livestock feed or export it to markets that do not accept GM crops will be severely and negatively affected. If it is commercialized, RRA will be the first perennial GM crop to be introduced in Canada.

If you eat dairy, beef, lamb, chicken, pork or honey, alfalfa has likely gone toward putting that food on your platePhoto credit: Lev \ Fotolia.com

Seed escape

If you have sprouted alfalfa, you’ll know the seeds are small. The likelihood of inadvertent seed spillage during planting, as it is poured from storage containers into seeding equipment, and during harvesting and transportation, is very high. Seed and hay are often hauled across roadways from farm to farm, and even from one region to another. In drought times, for instance, farmers from Western Canada have donated hay to eastern farmers, and vice versa. Such neighbourly activities can inadvertently spread GM alfalfa seed across the country. Seed may also be left behind in hoppers, bins and seeding and harvesting equipment after they are cleaned out.

The risk of seed escape is heightened by the fact that harvested alfalfa seed often contains some “hard seed,” which is unable to absorb water due to its hard seed coat. Hard seed may remain dormant after it is planted for up to a few years, and can then germinate at a later time. Even the most stringent efforts at separation can – and ultimately will – fail due to human error. 

Pollinator-mediated contamination

Native bees may visit alfalfa fields, either when there isn’t another forage source within their flight distances or when they “spill over” from wildflowers growing nearby. Alfalfa has a number of native pollinators, including wild bees from the Megachile and Bombus genera, and the well-known and widely studied leafcutter bee and honeybee.

Leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata) are often used to pollinate alfalfa being grown for commercial seed production. Studies in the US have shown that these bees can disperse pollen from alfalfa fields for distances up to 1,000 metres. 

Honeybees (Apis sp) may also pollinate alfalfa. Alfalfa flowers have a pollen-carrying “keel,” which trips insects when they visit the flower and hits them on the head. (The keel is made up of two petals that enclose the reproductive organs of the flower.) This action transfers the pollen to the insect. Mature honeybees do not pollinate alfalfa at high rates – somewhat unsurprisingly, they do not appreciate being hit on the head. However, this is a learned behaviour, and juvenile honeybees may pollinate alfalfa flowers. Honeybees can carry pollen for up to 10 km.

Researchers at Colorado State University found that bees had transmitted pollen from RRA fields to 83 per cent of the sites they tested, and as far as 1.7 miles (2.7 km) from the source of pollen. Honeybees were responsible for a majority of this pollen transfer, assisted to a lesser degree by leafcutter and alkali bees.

Proponents of GM alfalfa claim that pollinator-mediated contamination is not likely because alfalfa is cut for hay before it flowers. This is not, however, a foolproof guideline. In fact, alfalfa grown for hay production is often cut after 10 per cent of the stand blooms. In the case of RRA, the blooming flowers would give pollinators a clear chance to transfer pollen to non-GM alfalfa. In addition, the realities of farming mean that there is tremendous variability in the actual harvest time of an alfalfa stand. Unexpected weather conditions or breakdowns in harvesting or baling equipment may delay the harvest, allowing the stand to mature and flower, and increasing the risk of cross-pollination. Just as it is impossible to fully control the range of pollinators, it is also impossible to fully control the bloom on a forage stand.

Feral and volunteer alfalfa

Alfalfa produces persistent and hardy feral populations. The alfalfa you often see growing in ditches in rural areas can act as a “bridge” that facilitates gene flow from GM alfalfa, both through cross-pollination and by producing seeds that may then germinate. Studies of feral alfalfa populations in the US, where RRA has been grown since 2011, found high levels of contamination in roadside feral alfalfa populations.

Volunteer GM alfalfa – from roots, or plants that have gone to seed during seed production, or in hay fields, pastures, wasteland or ditches – can grow in other non-GM fields. RRA volunteer crops can also grow in other Roundup Resistant crop fields, such as soybean, corn and canola. Since no volunteer RRA will be killed when glyphosate is used as weed control, the plants can bloom and set seed. Pollinators visiting these fields may carry and spread pollen from the volunteer RRA plants.

The risks that farmers face because of GM alfalfa contamination are compounded by another growing worry. Farmers in the US and Canada are reporting “superweeds” that are increasingly resistant to Roundup and very hard to get rid of. In response, seed and chemical companies are developing new herbicide-tolerant GM varieties, which only promise to further increase the use of herbicides. Dow AgroSciences, for instance, has developed GM seed that is tolerant to the chemical 2,4-D (a primary ingredient in Agent Orange). The list of environmental and health damage that 2,4-D (and other products like it) are capable of causing is long and disturbing. 

The risks of contamination and weed resistance have led groups such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) to urge the federal government and the CFIA not to give Roundup Ready Alfalfa variety registration. Along with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, an organization that researches and campaigns on issues related to genetic engineering, the NFU held a national day of action earlier this year. Farmers, beekeepers and eaters (and even a few lambs!) in 38 communities across Canada participated in rallies on April 9. Several met with their local MPs to encourage them to stop the release of RRA. The speeches farmers gave that day were a heartfelt reminder of what is at stake. 

Nathan Carey, an organic farmer from Neustadt, Ontario, spoke at the rally in Owen Sound. “Are we living in a world where GM alfalfa is even an option?” Carey asked. “That is completely unreasonable! Here is a modified organism that many farmers say they don’t want. Here is an organism that will contaminate our landscape, spreading further each year. Here is an organism that benefits very few, to the detriment of us all. Here is an organism that threatens the integrity of organic, and any farmer who chooses non-GM agriculture.” 

The federal government, however, does not appear to share these concerns. Nor, of course, do companies like Monsanto, who claim that RRA will benefit farmers by offering a “superior crop” with “fewer weeds in every bale.” When asked by a reporter about the protests outside his office in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, the federal Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz said that while he “recognize[s] the right of Canadians to demonstrate, should they decide, or to wave a flag in front of my office any chance that they have,” he hopes that Canadians will “make their reasoning and their rationale based on sound science, as we [the government] have done.” 

The NDP and Liberal parties don’t agree. Both parties have called for moratoriums on the approval of RRA. “It’s incomprehensible that the Harper conservatives would allow Monsanto to genetically alter a crop that serves farmers perfectly well already,” said Malcolm Allen, the NDP’s agriculture critic, on the day of the protests. 

And Nathan Carey is hardly the only farmer who feels RRA is a threat. “Alfalfa is simply irreplaceable as a feed for livestock and as a nutrient source in many forms, for crops from vegetables to wheat,” says Ann Slater, an organic farmer from Lakeside, Ontario, who is surrounded by non-organic farms. She has spent the first few months of 2013 asking her neighbours whether they think GM alfalfa would benefit them. “I am still waiting to hear a farmer tell me they want GM alfalfa to be approved,” she says. “I must conclude that it is not farmers who want or need GM alfalfa; therefore, it must be the company selling the seed who wants to be able to sell one more higher-cost input to farmers.”

Asked what farmers can do to make sure they don’t have unwanted GM alfalfa in their fields and animal feed, Slater’s answer is straightforward. “There is only way to stop contamination from GM alfalfa,” she says. “And that’s to keep it off the market.” 

Find out how you can help stop RRA’s release in Canada at the Canadian Biodiversity Action Network and The National Farmers Union, and listen to Taarini Chopra explain this evolving debate in the Food & Drink podcast.

Taarini Chopra is the publications coordinator at Seeds of Diversity Canada and researcher at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). Taarini was the associate editor at A\J for three years and now serves on the editorial board. She has worked on organic farms in Ontario, was co-chair of the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable, and worked with the Global Food Politics Group at the University of Waterloo, where she also completed graduate research on global food policy and the politics of GM crops and foods.

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