Sale of controversial seed delayed after protests across Canada

Quebec farmers oppose release of genetically modified alfalfa

Protesters demonstrate against genetically modified alfalfa in Toronto in April 2013. Such resistance has kept the seed out of Canada’s farms for now.

Photograph by: Frank Gunn , THE CANADIAN PRESS

MONTREAL — A tiny, genetically modified seed is pitting Quebec farmers against the biotech industry.

A GM version of alfalfa, a staple in livestock feed, was supposed to be launched in Canada this year. The product, produced with technology by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed-and-chemical company, has already been approved by the federal government. But after protests across the country, farmers learned in March that the controversial seed won’t be here for at least another year.

Farmer Marcel Groleau is relieved. He and his brother raise 100 dairy cows in Thetford Mines, and he was worried that GM alfalfa would spread beyond the few farms that might decide to grow it and contaminate conventional and organic farms across Quebec.

High-protein alfalfa, a kind of hay, is one of the most important crops in this province, used to feed livestock and dairy animals, says Groleau, who is president of the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec (UPA).

Genetically altered seeds — the DNA of which has been engineered to resist such threats as pesticides, disease, or environmental conditions — are a growing phenomenon in farms across the globe. Canada already permits GM soybeans, canola and livestock corn, and is considering giving the green light to GM apples and salmon.

GM alfalfa is already grown on some U.S. farms.

U.S.-based Monsanto and Forage Genetics International (which created the GM alfalfa varieties using Monsanto’s technology) delayed issuing licences for the seed in Canada after protests in Montreal, Lévis, Quebec City and 35 communities in other provinces. One of the largest marketers of dairy products in the United States, Land O’ Lakes Inc., owns Forage Genetics.

In this province, the resistance to introducing GM alfalfa has been particularly strong.

“The UPA isn’t against genetically modified seeds in general, but we voted unanimously — for two years in a row — that commercialization of GM alfalfa should be prohibited,” says Groleau.

The Quebec Federation of Milk Producers, the Quebec Federation of Organic Agriculture, the Filière biologique du Québec and the UPA recently declared that they “strongly deplore” the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s approval of GM alfalfa varieties in April 2013.

The widespread resistance among farmers and seed companies is one reason that the seed won’t be released this year, says Victor Lefebvre, Quebec director of Pickseed, a company that had planned to sell GM alfalfa.

“The seed is very, very close to market, but nobody is ready to jump on it,” he says.

Six other seed companies (Synagri, Growmark, Quality Seeds, Pride Seeds, DuPont Pioneer, and La Coop fédérée) were lined up to sell GM alfalfa in Quebec or other provinces.

The tiny seed contains a gene that resists a Monsanto herbicide called glyphosate, or Roundup. Farmers plant the GM alfalfa and spray fields with Roundup, which kills every plant except the Roundup-resistant alfalfa, also known as Roundup Ready alfalfa. The seed-chemical combo is a fast way of weeding.

Pickseed’s Lefebvre says that some farmers have been begging him for two years to buy it, because they plant 100-per-cent alfalfa and like the weed management. “These farmers have three to five silos: one for alfalfa, one for grasses, one for silage corn and so on,” he explains. Using GM alfalfa leads to hay that contains more accurate ratios of weed-free alfalfa that farmers mix with other livestock food.

However, most conventional farmers plant alfalfa along with other grasses.


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