Here is a copy of a letter Bryan just sent out about genetically engineered alfalfa. This is an issue that hasn’t been getting much press in our area, even in our farming publications and we hope it spurs conversation. We’ve posted some links where they apply to parts of our letter. These are not references but rather articles you might find interesting for further reading.
We would love to read your comments and, as people send us interesting comments or information by email, we will post them in the comments section below.
Dear County Boards of the NS Federation of Agriculture, NS Commodity Groups, Council of Leaders members, Executive members, staff of the NS Federation of Agriculture, staff of the Department of Agriculture, staff of Perennia and to our honourable Minister of Agriculture Keith Colwell,
I am writing to you today to make you aware of an issue you may be unfamiliar with given the lack of education and media news surrounding it, but one which will have a large impact on the risk management strategies of many farmers across the province.
This spring, after Western Canadian producers decided against the release of GE (genetically engineered) alfalfa, Forage Genetics International decided to instead release the seed for sale in Eastern Canada (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland).
This GE Alfalfa variety is called HarvExtra. It contains 2 GE traits. One is the Roundup Ready trait. The other reduces the lignin content of the alfalfa.
The purpose of my letter is not related to genetically engineered technology in general, but very specifically to GE alfalfa.
Alfalfa, as many of you know very well, is a perennial crop, most often grown in rotation and in combination with other crops. It is pollinated by bees, which makes it difficult to control in terms of the unintentional spreading of GE traits to non-GE alfalfa stands. It can also become a weed very easily and Nova Scotia has a population of wild alfalfa on field edges, in ditches, along roadsides everywhere which cross-pollinates with our cultivated varieties.
Beekeepers have come out against the release of GE alfalfa because there are already so many things contributing to the decline of bee health and there is a possibility that this crop could add to their burden.
Farmers who grow alfalfa as a part of a rotation and in combination with other crops see the Roundup Ready technology as a pointless, even burdensome trait. Roundup Ready alfalfa will not be able to be killed using Roundup. The Roundup Ready trait is also outdated technology for new varieties being released, since so many farmers are seeing Roundup Resistance among their most persistent weeds.
The low-lignin trait, while at first glance can seem appealing since lignin is not digestible and therefore a low-lignin crop has the possibility of offering more nutrition with less plant material, is also a potentially harmful one. Lignin is a fibre and all animals (including humans) require fibre to maintain good health.
There is also the fact that as both an industry and as a country, agriculture in Canada needs to move towards more carbon-friendly practices. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is taken up by plants and stored in the lignin (in addition to the root matter). And so, low-lignin alfalfa is actually a step in the opposite direction to the one we should be moving in for Carbon-friendly farm practices.
As farmers, we must always be aware of the risks to our business and try to mitigate them. This is what Western farmers have done in speaking out against GE alfalfa. It is a huge marketing and profitability risk, for both producers who are selling to export markets that don’t accept GE product as well as to producers who sell domestically and locally to markets that don’t want GE product (such as non-GMO and Organic markets). GE alfalfa seriously reduces our marketing options.
As an Organic farmer, I can tell you that GE alfalfa will heavily impact the organic sector which is a sector that is growing quickly around the world and offers a lot of economic benefits to farmers in Nova Scotia as well as across the country.
Organic dairy and meat producers rely on organic alfalfa. Organic crop farmers use alfalfa within their rotation and as a soil amendment due to alfalfa’s great ability to bring nutrients up from deep within the soil. Organic farmers cannot use any alfalfa that has been contaminated with GE traits.
A co-existence plan for GE alfalfa has been created however most farmers who have read it and are familiar with the way bee-pollination happens as well as the nature of alfalfa as a plant have realized how ineffective that co-existence plan will be in the long-term.
I believe it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure that we are moving agriculture as a whole in a positive direction and to not put the viability of any farmer’s business at risk where we can help it.
Farmers I have spoken to, in general, feel that regular alfalfa has not been a difficult crop to establish and that the new GE alfalfa varieties are unnecessary, however I would be very happy to talk with farmers who feel that this GE alfalfa variety is very important for the success of their personal business because I do want to hear all sides.
As President of the Cumberland County Federation of Agriculture, a member of the Council of Leaders, and a young farmer looking towards the future viability of my own farm business, I am asking you to seriously consider this issue and look at both the pros and cons of this particular crop being released in our region.
At the very least, I believe this issue should be widely discussed and disseminated by our Federation and Department of Agriculture so that farmers can make their own personal risk management plans around the GE alfalfa release into our region. The NS Federation of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture have the responsibility of being the main ways issues like this are shared with the general farming population in Nova Scotia and need to help farmers learn about the risks to their farm businesses before it’s too late.
Thank you very much for reading my letter and seriously considering my thoughts. It is a privilege for me to be a farmer in Nova Scotia and to be able to learn so much from so many experienced farmers across the province. Through you, I am being mentored as a better farmer, better agricultural leader, and better rural community member.
You are welcome to share this letter as widely as you’d like to and I look forward to hearing your own thoughts on this issue.
Bryan Dyck, farmer at Broadfork Farm and President of the Cumberland County Federation of Agriculture