At first blush, it's hard to see why anyone could get all worked up over a crop like alfalfa -- a leafy legume with pretty purple flowers that fixes its own nitrogen, provides rich livestock fodder and generally improves the soil in which it lives.
But alfalfa has become a polarizing force on the Canadian agricultural scene lately.
The stakes are high, and getting higher, as alfalfa genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate herbicides inches its way towards commercialization in Canada.
Although it received regulatory clearances for production in Canada in 2005, varieties carrying the Roundup Ready gene were just approved for production this year. As technology goes, if this were a phone it would be obsolete by now, and it hasn't even made it to market yet.
Manitoba forage-seed producers are among those hoping it doesn't, at least not until some key export customers for forage seed become more tolerant of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Forage seed -- as opposed to hay -- is a $25-million industry in Manitoba, particularly in the Interlake. The 100,000 acres sown to those crops in this province represent nearly one-third of Canada's forage-seed acres and 40 per cent of the total Canadian acres for alfalfa seed.
Eighty per cent of that seed is exported, much of it to Europe, where buyers have remained steadfast in their disapproval of this approach to crop improvement.
Forage-seed producers say the risk of cross contamination is too high and the potential of losing those European markets too great to justify introducing the GM alfalfa at this time. They argue they aren't benefitting from the technology but will be burdened with the potential costs.
Proponents, who include cattle farmers looking for improved feed yields, counter that queasy customers shouldn't be allowed to block progress in the form of new technology.
So the proposal for now is to only introduce the new alfalfa in Eastern Canada, where most of the forage grown is fed on the farm. The Canadian Seed Trade Association recently attempted to broker a compromise by facilitating discussions towards a coexistence strategy based on the old adage good fences make good neighbours.
"Co-existence plans will be based on good communication and mutual respect between neighbours, individuals and companies who have opted for different approaches to production, to capture different market opportunities, (e.g. organic, conventional and biotechnology," the plan states.
The strategy outlines a series of measures, such as buying certified seed, harvesting the alfalfa just as it starts to bloom, controlling feral alfalfa growing in the ditches and keeping GM and non-GM alfalfa segregated in storage.
It sounds good in theory. But academics and farmers alike say it is impractical in the field, where weather and free-flying pollinators can make a farce out of even the most diligent of management plans. For example, how do you prevent bees from carrying pollen from a GM field into a non-GM field? And how do you guarantee you harvest before it blooms if it rains during the critical week?
Once the varieties are out there, there is no going back. Even with strictly enforced contracts dictating how eastern farmers manage the crop, opponents fear it is only a matter of time before that seed makes its way west.
The ink was barely dry on the Canadian co-existence strategy when reports surfaced about a U.S. farmer who lost an export sale because his conventional alfalfa crop tested positive for GM alfalfa -- despite the presence of similar co-existence protocols in that country. The farmer had sown a non-GM variety in 2010, which has somehow become co-mingled with GM seed.
The U.S. government has taken a hands-off approach to the whole affair, saying GM alfalfa now has regulatory approval and it is up to the marketplace to sort out the cross-contamination issue. It is likely Canadian governments will do the same.
Some farmers want this technology. Some don't. But it looks like they'll be getting it anyway.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com