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April 12, 2013

Farmers need to get off the sidelines and join technology debate

Owen Roberts

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If you're a consumer who wants to know what farmers think, stay tuned.

On Tuesday at noon, protesters will take to the streets in more than 30 communities across Canada to voice their displeasure over the prospect of genetically modified alfalfa being planted in Canadian fields.

Locally, they’ll be assembling outside the Waterloo constituency office of Kitchener-Waterloo MP Peter Braid, and in Guelph at the provincial government building on Stone Road, then crossing the street to Monsanto’s eastern Canada headquarters in the University of Guelph’s Research Park.

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, which despite its name is actually against genetically modified crops, is leading the charge. It wants you to believe farmers neither want nor need Roundup Ready alfalfa.

On the other side of this debate is agri-business, particularly Monsanto, which created the technology, and a company called Forage Genetics International, which is commercializing it in Canada. They want you to believe farmers do indeed need and want Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is consumers, many of whom are wondering what’s alfalfa?

Good question. Well, simply put, alfalfa is hay. It’s a very popular crop with farmers, grown then harvested for livestock feed.

Farmers don’t want weeds in their alfalfa for the same reason they don’t want weeds in their other crops — during the growing season, weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight.

And later, after harvest, farmers don’t want weed leaves, stalks, stems and seeds mixed in with their otherwise balanced livestock feed.

Glyphosate, manufactured under the trade name Roundup by Monsanto, is an effective herbicide. A couple of decades ago, Monsanto figured out how to tweak a plant’s genetic structure to tolerate Roundup, so the herbicide would kill weeds, but not Roundup Ready plants. That trait became extremely popular with soybean and canola farmers — in some cases, too popular, it turns out, because certain weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate.

Resistance is one of the activists’ complaints with genetically modified alfalfa, which could be planted in Ontario this growing season. As well, they say, cross pollination is a problem. They say bees don’t distinguish among conventional, organic and genetically modified alfalfa, and could pollinate them all. That creates headaches for organic farmers trying to grow unaltered crops.

So in the face of this whirlwind, where do farmers line up?

Well, they’ve been pretty silent so far. But it seems to me they should pipe up now and have their voices heard, or their future could be determined by someone other than them.

Many people think this genetically modified alfalfa debate is about limiting farmers’ production tools, such as genetically modified crops in general, by swaying public opinion against technology.

It’s not unimaginable. More and more, the public is becoming convinced local food, produced in some romanticized old-fashioned way, is the answer to everything. So maybe now more than ever, the public can be led away from evidence-based policy, the kind that research guides.

Is that what farmers want? I doubt it. Farmers traditionally support research. They’ve experienced huge gains in production because of research.

But now a research-driven technology is in the public eye, getting stomped on by anti-technology advocates, and farmers are standing by watching.

In a democracy, all sides have a right to be heard. Without question, we’ll be hearing from opponents, with placards, slogans and — most important, at this time — claims that they represent farmers.

And while they do indeed represent some farmers, they don’t represent all farmers. But that may not be what the public thinks.

Look outside — the future is marching down the street. Farmers, is that what you want?

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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