A Line in the Dirt

Why farmers want to keep genetically modified alfalfa out of Alberta

By Alex Gillis

In January, Heather and John Kerschbaumer left their 7,500-acre farm near the mighty Peace River and flew to the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas for a conference about alfalfa. The Kerschbaumers have been growing alfalfa, one of Canada’s most important crops, for four generations. According to Heather Kerschbaumer, who’s been to the Western Alfalfa Seed Growers Winter Conference four times, the gathering is a learning experience. Every year she settles into her chair to listen to Mark McCaslin, the vice-president of research for Forage Genetics International (FGI), give pretty well the same lecture. This year’s title was the same as last year’s: “The Future of Genetic Improvement in Alfalfa.” That future, however, recently became a lot closer—and it deeply concerns the Kerschbaumers and many other farmers.

The future began with on-farm trials of genetically modified alfalfa in the Prairies in 2007. The subsequent seven years of fighting have shown Kerschbaumer that few outsiders understand the stakes, though they have huge implications for anyone who grows or eats food. FGI created GM alfalfa using a patent by Monsanto, the planet’s largest seed and chemical company. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved the seed in 2005 and permitted its sale in 2013, but FGI hasn’t released it in Canada. FGI and Monsanto want to make the seed available to farmers immediately, but farmers’ concerns are holding them up. Kerschbaumer, for example, doesn’t want GM alfalfa at her farm, Golden Acre Seeds. A board member of Forage Seed Canada, she says that most alfalfa seed farmers in Canada—and dozens of organizations, from the Alberta Organic Producers Association to the National Farmers Union—agree with her. The problem is: Once GM alfalfa is planted in Canada, farmers may not have much of a choice about whether it grows on their land.

GM alfalfa is unique: The world’s first GM perennial, it grows on its own each year, like a weed, mainly because of bees and water but also because small amounts of it can end up in packages of non-GM seeds. Monsanto and FGI claim the seed won’t spread to non-GM fields, but farmers keep hearing stories that it’s doing just that in the US. If the GM seed spreads in Canada, farmers stand to lose a lot. Unwanted GM alfalfa could devastate farms that export hay, alfalfa seeds, pellets and other products, because most importing countries, including the EU, don’t allow GM alfalfa. The US is the only country that has approved GM alfalfa seeds for cultivation and sale.

Meanwhile, the GM seed’s spread could all but destroy organic dairy, organic livestock and other organic farms that grow or use alfalfa, since organic certification could be extremely difficult with GM alfalfa around. This concern is particularly important in Alberta, which, along with BC and Ontario, boasts the most developed organic markets in Canada.

Alfalfa, the “queen of forages,” accounts for almost 30 per cent of Canada’s cropland. Farmers feed high-protein alfalfa to their animals and grow it to replenish their soils. Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan farmers grow more than 80 per cent of Canada’s alfalfa (and almost all of our alfalfa seeds), and farmers export approximately $80-million in alfalfa hay, seeds and pellets to other countries. Canada has approved GM soybeans, canola and field corn, among other crops, and is considering giving the green light to GM apples and salmon, but not since the fight against GM wheat (10 years and counting) has there been such a protest against a Monsanto seed technology.

The seed could all but destroy organic dairy and other organic farms, since GM alfalfa would make certification extremely difficult.

Heather Kerschbaumer once made a list of the benefits and costs of GM alfalfa for a presentation to farmers. The bullet list of risks was too long for one slide. The list of benefits had only one bullet: weed control. GM alfalfa contains a gene that resists a Monsanto herbicide called glyphosate, or Roundup. Farmers plant the seed and spray fields with Roundup, which kills every plant except the Roundup Ready alfalfa (RRA). The seed/chemical combo is a fast way of weeding. FGI’s Aaron VanEe, a farmer from Rosemary, explains that some hay producers need weed control when they want fields of 100 per cent alfalfa. “Some farmers like to grow alfalfa by itself as a protein source to be blended with other crops,” VanEe says.

However, very few farmers grow 100 per cent alfalfa. Most grow it as hay and feed it to livestock—weeds and all. Kurt Shmon, president of Imperial Seeds, a Manitoba-based seed wholesaler, told me that the likely costs of introducing GM alfalfa to Canada “tremendously overshadow” the benefits to a select few farmers who want greater weed control.

For starters, the benefit of weed control may be short-lived. A growing body of reports, including a 2013 study of two decades worth of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Environmental Protection Agency data, found that US farmers using GM crops initially reduce their need for herbicides and pesticides but ultimately end up using more due to the rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds—so-called “superweeds.” Some weeds are becoming so strong they can withstand numerous chemical doses, and so sturdy they can damage harvesting equipment. The spread of these tenacious weeds has been called “a crisis” in US agriculture; one University of Iowa weed scientist calls it “Darwinian evolution in fast-forward.”

Contamination may be the more immediate concern for prairie farmers, as Canada’s experience with GM flax seeds suggests. In 2009 GM flax spread to non-GM fields in Canada and ended up in shipments to 35 countries. GM flax was illegal to sell at the time (after on-farm trials ended) and had been rounded up and destroyed years before, so people were startled when it spread out of control. Canada was a world leader in flax production and export, and the contamination cleanup cost farmers and the Canadian government millions of dollars. No one has found out how or why GM flax spread. A similar situation happened with GM canola between 1995 and 1998.


John and Heather Kerschbaumer releasing leafcutter bees in their alfalfa fields near Grande Prairie. GM alfalfa is unique: the world’s first GM perennial, it grows on its own each year, like a weed, and can easily contaminate non-GMO fields such as the Kerschbaumers’. (Heather Kerschbaumer)

But proponents of GM alfalfa claim contamination won’t happen this time. Monsanto and FGI point to a new coexistence plan and a stewardship agreement that will supposedly allow GM and non-GM farms to coexist. The Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA), an Ottawa-based lobbyist for the two companies and other biotechs, released a “Coexistence Plan for Alfalfa Hay in Eastern Canada” in 2013, listing more than a dozen “best-management practices” to prevent cross-contamination, including mowing wild alfalfa from roadsides and ditches, cleaning machinery and equipment and talking to neighbours to find out who’s growing GM alfalfa. In addition, Canadian farmers will have to sign Monsanto’s stewardship agreement for alfalfa before buying or planting the seed, just as their US counterparts do, agreeing to a list of practices that are said to decrease contamination.

But no government enforces coexistence plans, and alfalfa spreads in spite of stewardship agreements. Last summer, for example, a broker rejected the alfalfa hay of a farmer in Washington state because it was contaminated with GM alfalfa. The USDA confirmed the contamination but said it was a “commercial issue” and wasn’t the government’s responsibility. The broker rejected the alfalfa for export. “That case showed that no one has control of the gene,” says Shmon. The Washington farmer paid the price for that mistake, one that’s repeating itself for various kinds of GM organisms in the US, especially on organic farms. This year, a survey of 1,500 organic farmers by Food & Water Watch and the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing concluded that “the risks and the effects of GMO contamination have unfairly burdened organic and non-GMO farmers with extra work, longer hours and financial insecurity.” One-third of respondents had already dealt with GM contamination on their farms. Of those, over half had seen product rejected by buyers for that reason, at a median cost of $4,500 per truckload.

Lucy Sharratt, coordinator at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a coalition of 17 organizations, thinks Monsanto, FGI and the CSTA’s plans and agreements contain more fantasy than reality. For example, in some provinces, farmers aren’t allowed to mow ditches. And what farmer has the time and money to survey neighbours in a two-kilometre radius to find out who’s growing what? “The industry made up a list of impractical measures for farmers to follow and called it a coexistence plan,” she says. “It’s not based on science or reality. Conventional and organic farmers alike are against it, across Canada.”

As a result of expense and plain fear, farmers avoid reporting contaminations. “I know from my own experience: No one talks about it if it occurs,” says Weldon Hobbs, an Alberta farmer who breeds and sells leafcutter bees. In his 40 years in the industry, he’s provided bees to alfalfa farms across the continent. Hobbs recalls two cases that briefly got attention because people complained. In 2011 a Saskatchewan farmer bragged to neighbours about planting GM alfalfa without a licence from Monsanto. To its credit, the company immediately investigated and forced him to terminate the field. In another case, in 2012, a farmer near Brooks found GM alfalfa in his 75-acre alfalfa field after he’d planted FGI’s non-GM alfalfa seed. In response to his concerns, FGI and Monsanto helped him remove the roughly 13 GM plants per acre. FGI later reported that the parent seed it had sold to him met seed purity requirements for Canada, in spite of the contamination. Trish Jordan, public and industry affairs director at Monsanto Canada in Winnipeg, says such events are “isolated cases.” Hobbs says a study by scientist Stephanie Greene shows otherwise.

Greene is a plant physiologist with the US National Centre for Genetic Resources Preservation. She led a GM alfalfa study funded by the US government, independent of biotechnology companies, that’s astounding many farmers. In 2011 she discovered that 15 per cent of 2,300 randomly selected roadside sites in Washington, Idaho and California had wild alfalfa. That wasn’t surprising. Alfalfa grows like a weed, after all. But of the alfalfa found, 21 per cent tested positive for Monsanto and FGI’s transgene. Greene hadn’t expected such a high number, because farmers had grown GM alfalfa on 80,000 acres only for a year or two before a lawsuit in 2007 prohibited them from selling the seeds. In the four years between the prohibition and Greene’s study, farmers had plowed down GM seed fields, with only GM hay fields allowed to continue growing. “We don’t know where the transgenes came from in 2011,” Greene told me. They could have come from pollen flow from those hay fields, or from two years (2005–2007) when the US allowed farmers to plant GM seed alfalfa, or from some other source, she says. Greene will publish her groundbreaking study this fall.

Reactions from biotech companies have been cautious. Monsanto’s Jordan, for example, says Greene’s work is preliminary. “As such, we are not prepared to offer detailed comment,” she tells me.

Contamination isn’t only about wild alfalfa near ditches. Kerschbaumer explains that timothy, clover, bromegrass and other crops could become contaminated. She tells the story of a Japanese company that wanted a special variety of timothy seed grown here and shipped to Japan. The Kerschbaumers contracted a farmer to grow and harvest the seed, and they cleaned and bagged it afterwards, making it as pure as possible. A government lab tested a 10-gram sample and found no GM seeds. But the Japanese company asked for a second test, this time of a 25-gram sample. The Kerschbaumers found one GM canola seed in that test, probably because a couple of stray canola plants had grown in the timothy field. The Japanese company rejected 44,000 pounds of timothy seeds.

Kerschbaumer and the grower were floored. If they’d known that the seed was GM, then the farmer could have yanked the canola before harvest. In the end, the seed was sold in Alberta, but at a much lower price than it would have fetched from the Japanese company. And this isn’t an isolated case; a Canadian government study found traces of alfalfa in 468 samples of different crops. In Kerschbaumer’s case, she and the grower lost $22,000 because of one GM seed.

Organic producers could lose a lot more. GM alfalfa could wreck Canadian organic farming if it spreads, because certification by Canadian Organic Standards doesn’t allow any GM content whatsoever. The milk or meat of a cow that eats GM alfalfa cannot be certified organic. The additional cost of buying alfalfa from non-GM regions or countries would make local organics more expensive for the consumer. A similar situation has happened with canola. More than 97 per cent of Canada’s canola is now GM, and because canola is easily spread by wind, most organic farmers don’t bother trying to grow it because certification is nearly impossible.

In 2012 Canadian organic markets grew to $3.7-billion, tripling since 2006 and far outpacing the growth of other agri-food sectors, says Ashley St. Hilaire, acting executive director of the Canadian Organic Growers. Nearly 60 per cent of Canadians buy at least some organic products every week. Resistance against GM alfalfa has been particularly strong in Quebec, which is the most important milk producer in the country and provides most of Canada’s organic milk. Associations and co-operatives representing nearly all Quebec farmers recently declared that they “strongly deplore” Canada’s approval of GM alfalfa and voted unanimously that commercialization of GM alfalfa should be prohibited.

A plan will supposedly allow GM and non-GM farms to coexist. But government won’t enforce the plan, and alfalfa could spread regardless.

Kerschbaumer, Shmon, Hobbs and many other farmers want to do the same in Alberta. Soon after Monsanto and FGI began running trials with Gold Medal Seeds, a company that FGI had bought in Brooks in 2007, Kerschbaumer joined farmers in Alberta and Manitoba to create Forage Seed Canada. “Three of us met with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz in 2009,” she tells me. “We were trying to educate him, alert him and get more information about the trials. We also met Wayne Easter, the Liberal agriculture critic. Both passed blame on the other and neither did anything.” Ritz still hasn’t replied to the 20 questions the farmers left for him five years ago, even though he promised to.

Imperial Seed’s Shmon thinks the federal government is too cozy with the biotechs and that bureaucrats are taken in by biased studies. “Canada’s approach to approving GM seeds is based on dubious scientific studies claiming that the genes won’t spread much,” Shmon explains. Many of those studies are either funded/staffed by a biotech company with a conflict of interest or aren’t peer reviewed for mainstream scientific publications. Shmon would like to see more studies like the USDA’s Stephanie Greene’s, studies that are independent of biotech funding and staff.

“This isn’t only about alfalfa,” Kerschbaumer adds. “It’s about the milk, cheese, ice cream and yogurt that comes from the cow that eats the alfalfa. It’s about consumers who want to be able to buy their meat from a farmers market or their neighbour down the road because they like to know how their food is grown.” CBAN’s Sharratt agrees that consumers will have less control over their food and the processes that go into making it. “Consumers generally want more control over the food they eat, and GM alfalfa is a prime example of a lack of control,” she says.

Last year, farmers and consumer groups led protests in 38 communities across Canada, including in Calgary, Camrose, Edmonton, Grande Prairie and Red Deer. When FGI and Monsanto postponed the launch of GM alfalfa from this year to 2015 or 2016, some groups saw it as a victory, but Monsanto’s Trish Jordan says that protesters don’t have an effect. “No biotech company reacts to opponents of genetic technology, or activists,” she explains. However, they do react to farmers and seed companies. Victor Lefebvre, a director at Pickseed, a company that plans to sell GM alfalfa in Canada, says widespread resistance among farmers and seed companies is one reason that the seed won’t be released this year. And as Imperial Seed’s Kurt Schmon demonstrates, not every seed company is on board with GM alfalfa.

Before Monsanto makes the seed available for sale, though, farmers, consumers and environmental groups are calling on the federal government to conduct a full assessment of the environmental, economic and social impacts of GM alfalfa. “Incredibly, there’s still no consultation with farmers or consumers, at any level of government, before GM seeds are approved,” says CBAN’s Sharratt.

Other levels of government could step in, says Shmon. “Alberta can ban GM alfalfa as a noxious weed, and municipalities and counties can take action,” he says. He and Kerschbaumer also suggest creating an “opportunity zone,” similar to one in Imperial County, California, the only place in North America where FGI and Monsanto have agreed not to distribute GM alfalfa (until July 2018). When Kerschbaumer was in Las Vegas earlier this year, Imperial County farmers advised her to keep GM alfalfa out of the Peace Region or out of Alberta if she could, “because you’ll get premium prices for GM-free alfalfa,” they told her. “GM alfalfa is spreading and you’ll make a lot of money from the GM-free version,” they said. Shmon adds that this is already happening; US companies are hiring more Albertan farmers to grow non-GM crops, because there are fewer contamination risks up here.

Recently, however, the stakes got higher. FGI and Monsanto announced a plan, pending approvals, to launch a “stacked” variety of GM alfalfa that contains two genetic traits, one that makes the crop resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide and a second that decreases lignin, allowing farmers to leave it in fields longer to increase yields. “The preliminary market poll shows that the stacked [variety] is going to be a bigger market than the individual product of reduced lignin,” Jose Arias, FGI’s director of alfalfa seed production, told a journalist at the Western Producer newspaper in April. But letting the crop grow for a longer time means 20 to 50 per cent of the field will bloom, increasing the chances that bees will find GM pollen and raising the likelihood of contamination. Monsanto and FGI still insist that GM fields can coexist with non-GM fields, even at 20 to 50 per cent bloom. One of their FGI-supported studies backs this.

“It’s a crock,” Shmon says. “They can’t have it both ways. At those bloom rates, the gene spreads.”

Heather Kerschbaumer sometimes feels like she’s beating her head against a wall, but she isn’t giving up. In what’s become an annual ritual, she plans to attend the next alfalfa conference in Las Vegas, in January 2015. The Golden Nugget will again host. Kerschbaumer expects she’ll attend FGI’s same speech about the future.

In one of her notes after a previous conference, she wrote, “It’s up to every county, every municipality, every part of Canada to fight back.” FGI and Monsanto may be close to getting GM alfalfa in the ground in Western Canada—FGI’s tagline is “We Never Stop”—but they’re facing growing resistance from Alberta farmers such as Kerschbaumer. “We have to look out for ourselves,” she wrote. “I’m not sure exactly how, but we’re working on it one step at a time.”

Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist who teaches feature writing at Ryerson


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