GM Alfalfa…More than Just a Health Concern

Last week, Slow Food Wellington County hosted an information night in Elora, about GM alfalfa.  Two special guests were Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator with CBAN (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network) in Ottawa, and Dr. Rene Van Acker, from the University of Guelph.  Over the course of two hours or so, we learned that the release of GM alfalfa is looming around the corner (and at this point, appears imminent).  But before we get to that….alfalfa

Usually, when there is talk of any genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), the most heated arguments revolve around health issues, and protests against GMO’s have to do with concerns about whether they have been proven safe to eat.  Most will argue that there just have not been any long-term studies to show this.  Heated arguments go back and forth, with neither side gaining any ground, it seems.  (Our family has decided to err on the side of caution, and we only eat non-GMO in our home.)  However, in the case of GM alfalfas, there are additional, equally serious concerns.

Alfafa is a high-protein perennial forage plant, grown on 30% of Canada’s farmland and 22% of Ontario’s farmland…that’s one in every 4 or 5 acres of farmland here in Ontario.  It is usually grown in a grass mix and harvested as hay or haylage for dairy cows and other livestock.  Many organic farmers use it as a crop rotation, and to build up soil fertility.  As a plant, alfalfa is a nitrogen-fixer, so it is extremely valuable for keeping soils healthy and fertile.

Aside from being a perennial, what sets alfalfa apart from already established GMO crops is that it is insect pollinated.  Leefcutter bees, honeybees and other insects can travels miles on their pollination pathways, which makes contamination of non-GMO alfalfa crops a real threat.  Add to that the fact that the seeds are tiny and can be spread through human error very easily (ie. not cleaning out equipment or haulage vehicles, and spillage).

One of the most frustrating things about the introduction of GM alfalfa is that Ontario farmers do not need or want it!  In fact, most farmers have no idea as to why the seed companies are “pushing” RoundUp Ready alfalfa.  The GM trait being inserted is glyphosate tolerance, making it another “RoundUp Ready” crop.  This means that RoundUp can be applied to a field of alfalfa and everything except the RR alfalfa will die.  The thing is, weeds are not usually a problem in alfalfa, since it is cut and harvested two to four times a year.  Also, most hay crops are mixed, ie. alfalfa mixed with other grasses, which RoundUp would kill if applied, making this trait redundant for most mixed haylage growers.   Seed growers may benefit by being able to use glyphosate on their crops, but most seed grown (especially in Western Canada) is exported.  When GM alfalfa was first approved by Health Canada in 2005, it was to be released in Western Canada, but protests by farmers (who have lucrative export markets for alfalfa seed in Europe) defeated the company’s attempt to release it.  Europe does not want GM alfalfa seeds, there simply is no market for it.

Here in Eastern Canada, we learned at the meeting, most of the alfalfa grown is used either on the farm where it is grown, or very locally, with no European exports per se.  This means our bargaining clout with the Agriculture Minister is greatly reduced, since there is no net financial loss (through international trade).

What will happen if GM alfalfa is released in Ontario?  Contamination is inevitable, and with cross-pollination occurring between GM alfalfa and non-GM alfalfa, there can be no coexistence.  There is already alot of wild or “feral” alfalfa growing on roadsides and in ditches.  This would all be contaminated eventually.  And because dairy cows have alfalfa as a substantial component of their feed, a non-GMO alfalfa means the end of all organic dairy.  Also, it’s use as a fabulous nitrogen-fixer would be eliminated on all organic farms, including organic vegetable growers.

So what can we do to take action? CBAN has these suggestions:

Email your member of Parliament and the Minister of Agriculture, Gerry Ritz.  email:  GERRY.RITZ@PARL.GC.CA

Or phone tel: 613-995-7080, fax 613-996-8472.  Or by mail – no postage required – write to Hon. Gerry Ritz, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6.  If you need a sample letter or to send a letter instantly through CBAN’s website, go here.

At the end of the meeting, to be quite honest, it seemed quite a bleak prospect for those of us wishing to keep GM alfalfa out of Ontario.  However, as a collective group, we renewed our enthusiasm and determination to keep protesting, to keep raising awareness, and to inform people about how the genetically modified seed industry is prepared to run roughshod over farmers who simply do not want this product.   We are just going to have to get more vocal, more visible and keep taking action.  Is this an “impossible” task?  I don’t believe so.  If this is something you feel strongly about, please take action…today.



4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by gary h rideout on November 13, 2013 at 4:34 am

    get rid of health Canada and Monsanto executives sitiing on farm boards —major conflicts of interest to the Canadian public food safety


  2. Posted by Margaret on November 13, 2013 at 10:49 am

    What happened to keeping our country free from GM anything……we have to get more vocal and get rid of the buerocrats who think this is good for our country. Canada is still a fairly pristine country…let’s keep it that way!


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