Guest blog by Quentin Martin, Ontario farmer
It is amazing how little some things change. In 1996, we grew some of the first available herbicide tolerant, or genetically modified (GM) soybeans, in Ontario. At the time opponents of the technology concocted many stories about how bad this would be for agriculture and food production. I even wrote articles at the time explaining the value of the science for our family farm operation and food production in general.
It is a little surprising to feel compelled seventeen years later to address the topic of herbicide tolerant alfalfa, due to recently published letters to editors and TV coverage of area protests on April 9th.
Some technology opponents claim “the concept of coexistence is flawed and impossible”. This is simply incorrect. Soybeans, both conventional and herbicide tolerant, have coexisted in this province quite well for over a decade. Soybeans have become Ontario’s largest crop by land area and approximately 2/3 of that crop in any given year will contain a herbicide tolerant trait that allows for effective and safe weed control. A significant portion of the area planted to conventional breed soybeans are produced under contract for a premium; conditioned, packaged and exported. The coexistence of conventional and new technology is working fine in soybeans.
There were just over two million acres of hay and pasture in Ontario in 2012, according to statistics provided by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. That makes this crop slightly smaller than both soybeans and corn but about twice the size of wheat, in the average year. Almost all the acres of hay and pasture will be made up of a significant portion of the high protein containing legume, alfalfa.
Protesters at a local MP’s office on April 9th claimed that genetically modified alfalfa would ‘contaminate’ their organic farms. I offer some simple facts to illustrate that such a fear is greatly exaggerated. Only a handful of acres of alfalfa in Ontario are harvested as seed, nearly all of it is harvested as whole plant hay or haylage and fed to livestock. Even if a bee were to buzz around a genetically modified alfalfa plant, take some pollen and fly to a field of conventional or even an organic field of alfalfa and pollenate a plant there, it does not change the genetics of that plant which is harvested for hay several times in a summer and for several years. If an alfalfa plant were left to set seed, it is most probable that it would be pollinated by the nearest plant of the same genetics. The key to coexistence is a farmer must buy the varieties of seed they desire. In Canada that is easy, we have a pedigreed seed system that has provided variety verification for over a century.
And finally a practical point about this specific technology. Almost all the acres planted to hay and pasture in Ontario will have other grass species deliberately included in the seed mixture to provide a more balanced feed for the livestock that eat the resulting crop. None of the grass species have the same herbicide tolerant trait. If a farmer plants a mixture of glyphosate-tolerant GM alfalfa with non-glyphosate-tolerant grasses and sprays the resulting crop with glyphosate weed control, yes…the grasses will all perish. As a result, I predict that even if the technology is available, very little glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa will be planted in Ontario. That probably explains why no company has advanced this trait in alfalfa in the past one and a half decades.