There’s been a buzz in the organic community over the past couple of years about the scary possibility of a new genetically modified crop to be grown in Canada. Round-up Ready Alfalfa, which has been developed by Monsanto, is awaiting approval to be sold and planted on Canadian soil. This has myself and many other organic and conventional farmers alike concerned about the long term implications of such a crop.
Currently there are four main genetically modified (GM) crops grown in Canada: field corn, canola, soy beans and white sugar beets. There is also some GM sweet corn now being grown in Ontario. In the organic standards outlined by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, no genetically modified plants or animals are permitted to be grown or raised on certified organic farms. Up until this point, it has been easy for our farm to comply with these standards. As a small-scale vegetable and livestock farm we don’t grow any crops that exist as genetically modified in Canada, so the risk of cross-contamination through wind or insect pollination isn’t a concern. With the prospect of GM alfalfa, all of this will change. Alfalfa is a very important crop for organic and conventional farmers alike. It is grown in most hay fields and some pastures and is an important soil-building crop as it fixes nitrogen in the soil. It is also insect pollinated, primarily by leaf cutter bees but also by honey bees and other insects.
Almost any farm raising livestock on pasture grows alfalfa. This includes pretty well all organic livestock farms since the access to fresh pasture is mandated in the organic standards. At our farm, we raise a small herd of grass-finished cattle and just down the road is an organic dairy farm who also pastures their dairy cattle. The possibility of GM alfalfa being approved in Canada is a frightening prospect for us as, if, and when it is planted by our neighbours, there will be no way to stop the cross-pollination of it by bees into our fields. This would basically eliminate the possibility of growing organic hay and pastures and raising organic livestock. On top of this is the concern for organic and conventional farmers alike either saving their own seeds (which is prohibited by patents held by Monsanto for their GM crops) or farmers trying to market alfalfa seeds and pellets for export, since a number of countries prohibit the import of GM crops. A similar fate was endured by canola growers when GM canola was approved and planted in Canada and quickly spread and contaminated virtually every canola field in the country.
There are many farmers who choose to plant GM crops for various reasons and the choice is up to them. The problems occur when farmers (and consumers) do not have a choice in what ends up in their fields (and on their plates). If GM alfalfa is approved in Canada as it was in the US in January 2011, all Canadian farmers would lose their choice in this matter.