To organic farmers like Larry Black, it represents the end of their blossoming industry.
To agricultural companies like Monsanto Co., it is a breakthrough technology that will help address dire food shortages in a rapidly growing world.
A war is escalating over genetically modified alfalfa - and depending on whom you talk to, either the fate of a sector or the future of millions hangs in the balance. The fight has emerged as a key battleground in the increasing tension between organic growers and biotech firms. With food prices rising and concerns mounting about global food demand, both sides have sharpened their attacks.
Organic farmers argue the approval of GM alfalfa represents a death sentence for their livelihood. They say it's impossible to control and will infect their fields, and in the process destroy an industry that has grown sharply over the past decade.
"I'm extremely concerned," said Mr. Black, who has about 70 cows on his farm outside Deloraine, Man., which is close to the U.S. border. "It's probably the No. 1 concern I have at this point."
But Monsanto says GM alfalfa - which boosts crop yields and lowers production costs - will play a key role in addressing global food shortages that will only get worse as the population swells to an expected nine billion people by the year 2050.
Almost every organic farmer in Canada grows alfalfa. The plant is an important source of animal feed that also helps rejuvenate soil, making it an ideal natural fertilizer. That natural element is key to the industry, which has seen global sales grow to $51-billion in 2008 from $15-billion in 1999.
But even as more consumers turn to organic produce and dairy products, farmers like Mr. Black say their businesses are under attack. They say the Monsanto-backed modified alfalfa, which recently won approval in the United States and is being mulled in Canada, will cripple their industry.
Organic producers point to the surge in popularity of their products and argue that maintaining genetic purity is paramount. Organic products now represent 3.5 per cent of all food and drink sales in North America.
Alfalfa is critical to that production, farmers argue, and it is easily threatened by GM variations. That's because, unlike many other agricultural crops such wheat and corn, which are pollinated largely by wind, alfalfa plants are pollinated by insects, which means a GM plant can contaminate an organic crop several kilometres away. GM alfalfa "is a real disaster particularly for those of us who care about the genetic purity of our crops that we feed to our livestock and grow on our farms," said federation president Ted Zettel, who manages Organic Meadow Inc., a Guelph, Ont.-based dairy operation. If the new variety is permitted in Canada, "we would probably be obliterated," he said.
Organic farmers have taken their fight to Ottawa, lobbying politicians to prevent the sale of the new alfalfa in Canada. Some have also joined a lawsuit filed against Monsanto last month in New York, which attacks the company's seed patents and seeks legal protection for farmers if their crops are contaminated by genetically modified seeds.
"GM alfalfa is becoming the largest threat to organic growing that we have ever seen," says Laura Telford, national director of the Canadian Organic Growers, one of 60 organizations and farmers in Canada and the United States who joined the lawsuit.
St. Louis-based Monsanto vigorously defends its products and has called the lawsuit a "publicity stunt" that is loaded with false and deceptive allegations. "Monsanto takes no issue whatsoever with organics or organic production," says Trish Jordan, a spokesperson for Monsanto Canada. "There is no one right way or wrong way to farm. Farmers make the choice of production method and products and technologies based on what works best for them on their farm."
Monsanto said its seed products, which are largely designed to withstand its herbicide Roundup, play an important role in boosting crop yields and reducing production costs. "This attack [in the lawsuit]comes at a time when the world needs every agricultural tool available to meet the needs of a growing population, expected to reach nine billion people by 2050," the company said in a statement.
While it is not technically producing GM alfalfa - Monsanto has licensed its technology to a company called Forage Genetics International that is making the Roundup-resistant seed - the company disputes suggestions organic crops will be contaminated. Monsanto points to studies that have shown the chances of contamination are extremely low and it notes that GM alfalfa has been grown in parts of the United States for years.
"One need only to look at the U.S., where 5,500 farmers have been growing this product on over 250,000 acres since 2005," Ms. Jordan said. She added that testing has been under way in Canada for several years and more tests are planned.
"Different agricultural production systems have been successfully practised in proximity to one another for many years and in many parts of the world," she said. "And although some of these high-profile legal actions would indicate otherwise, the true story is that conventional, organic and GM cropping systems have co-existed for more than a decade, demonstrating that, in the vast majority of cases, conflict-free co-existence is not only possible, it is a reality."
The debate won't end any time soon. The new alfalfa is expected to be registered for sale in Canada within the next couple of years and Mr. Zettel vows to keep fighting. "There is precedent for stopping things that get licensed in the U.S.," he said. "It doesn't happen all the time but eventually we win one. We are really working hard on this one to make sure it doesn't get here."Report Typo/Error