Posts Tagged ‘GM alfalfa’

The Food Read Round-up: GM alfalfa launch delayed, plus — food insecurity in the Far North, regional food hubs, and why food sustainability matters to consumers

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto is one of a growing number of food hubs that aim to make healthy, sustainable and fair accessible to all. Photo: Toban B. via Flickr

The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto is one of a growing number of local food hubs that aim to make healthy, sustainable and fair food accessible to all.
Photo: Toban B. via Flickr


The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

Farmers and consumers force delay in introduction of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa in Canada. Opposition from farmers and consumers has forced Forage Genetics International to delay its plan to release GM alfalfa seeds in Eastern Canada this spring, according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

If launched, the seeds would have been the latest in a line of GM products sold in this country. The list includes corn, canola and soybeans and could eventually include GM varieties of apple and salmon. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has approved five types of GM alfalfa for sale, deeming them to be safe for people, animals and the environment.

The GM alfalfa from Forage is engineered to resist Monsanto’s Roundup, a herbicide farmers spray on their crops to kill weeds. Since alfalfa is a perennial that’s pollinated by insects, the GM varieties would be guaranteed to spread, contaminating non-GM alfalfa and hurting the livelihoods of conventional and organic farmers.

Alfalfa is Canada’s most widely grown forage crop. Besides feeding livestock and dairy animals, it helps enrich the soil and represents $80 million in exports to other countries, many of which don’t accept GM foods.

Visit to find out more about GM alfalfa and how you can help stop its sale in Canada.

Food insecurity affects a disproportionate number of Aboriginal peoples in Northern Canada. A new report on food security* from the Council of Canadian Academies urges Canadians to deal with the disproportionately high levels of hunger and malnutrition among northern Aboriginal peoples. Entitled Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge, the report provides data on the different rates of food insecurity among Indigenous populations, outlines the factors that contribute to it, and explores the health implications, which can include anemia, heart disease, diabetes, child developmental problems and more.

Among the data it presents, the report points to the results of:

  • the 2007-2008 International Polar Year Inuit Health Survey showing that Nunavut had the highest documented levels of food insecurity for any Indigenous group living in a developed country
  • the 2011 Canadian Community Healthy survey indicating that off-reserve Aboriginal households across the country experienced rates of food insecurity more than double those of all non-Aboriginal households

Given the many factors involved, from climate change to cultural and economic realities, the report recommends that Northern communities, governments, business and institutions work closely together to find solutions.

The report uses the widely accepted definition from UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Food consumers are making sustainability a priority.  Good news: new research suggests that more North American consumers are making sustainability a priority when they buy food. While safety and nutritional value remain the biggest considerations, the survey shows that at least two-thirds of Americans also take sustainability into account, placing importance on where the food was produced as well as on eco-friendly production and packaging, animal welfare and  GMO-free. About 66% would pay more for food produced closer to home. In Canada, consumers demonstrate similar concerns. According to a 2011 survey from Vision, an agriculture research panel, 95% of Canadians reported that buying locally grown food was important to them while 43% said they would pay more for it.

Regional food hubs catch on. Regional food systems practitioners, supporters and food hub developers gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, last week for the sixth National Good Food Network (NGFN) conference. It’s another sign of the growing popularity of food hubs. According to a March 22 piece in Food Tank, hubs are the key to scaling up the system for food that’s healthy, eco-friendly, fair and affordable.

What’s a food hub? There are different definitions, but basically hubs are managed locations that bring together food producers, distributors, processors, consumers and other buyers. Food that’s been verified at source as local or regional can aggregated, stored, processed, distributed and marketed. Hubs may also provide space for wholesale and retail sales, social service programs, community kitchens and other food-related activities.

There are an estimated 200 food hubs across the U.S. and many have sprung up in Canada as well. For example, the Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre works to increase access to healthy food   through a comprehensive program that includes a food bank, food and community gardens, a greenhouse, bake ovens and markets, education on sustainable food systems, community cooking, and more. Closer to home, Ottawa’s Just Food Farm is being developed as a community food and sustainable agriculture hub. In Ottawa West, the Torbolton Institute is planning a multi-purpose hub that would combine a community SPIN garden with a food storage facility, farmers market, forest farm, and space for food and recreational activities such as cooking demonstrations.

What food stories have you been reading?

Food read round-up: GM alfalfa, endangered bees and misleading food claims

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Butterfly gathering pollen from flowering alfalfa
Photo: C. Wainwright, via Flickr


Genetically modified (GM) seeds, the wholesale use of herbicides and pesticides, deceptive product marketing and labeling: however you look at it, the industrial system that supplies much of the world’s food doesn’t  inspire confidence.

What can consumers do? Support local food producers. Push for more effective regulation. Above all, keep asking questions about how food is produced, and hold food companies, retailers and politicians to account.

Farmers seek environmental assessment of GM alfalfa from Ontario government:  The Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved genetically modified (GM) alfalfa back in 2005, but it wasn’t legal to grow it until recently.  In April 2013, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz allowed registration of one variety of GM alfalfa, leaving the door open for biotech companies to put their seeds on the market.  Forage Genetics International is already pushing to introduce the seeds in Eastern Canada.

Many farmers and other groups oppose GM seeds, citing risks such as contamination of non-GM crops and the loss of exports to markets (EU, Japan) where GM crops are not accepted. Given the federal government’s stance, two Ontario farmers have asked the provincial government to conduct an environmental assessment of the seed before it’s sold here.  They made the request under the under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which allows residents to request an assessment if they believe a new commercial activity could have a negative effect on the environment and economy.  It’s the first GM-related request made under the bill and was prepared by individuals and groups concerned about the risks of GM alfalfa, with supporting evidence from the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund, the National Farmers Union and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN).

The request argues that the GM crop would irreversibly contaminate the environment, promote herbicide-resistant weeds, encourage more herbicide use, and hurt farms, farmers and the food supply. A widely planted perennial, alfalfa flowers several times each season and is pollinated by a variety of insects, significantly raising the risk of contamination from GM varieties.

Ontario forms new working group to support bee health: As reports of declining bee populations continue to make headlines, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has announced that her government would form a working group to study bee health. Made up of beekeepers, farmers, representatives of food agribusiness, scientists and government officials, the group is to develop and release a plan to protect the bees by spring 2014.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the EU has banned several insect nerve agents known as neonicotinoids,  which have been linked to the decline in bees and other pollinators. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is re-evaluating neonicotinoid use but won’t issue a report until 2018. Given the urgency of the problem, Premier Wynne has asked the report date be advanced “significantly.”

Labels often hide food fraud: Despite the trend toward a more farm-to-fork transparency, it’s almost impossible to control the amount of food fraud that goes on every day, writes Clare Fischer Guajira in Food Fraud: Labels on What We Eat Often Mislead. Whether it’s done to persuade consumers to buy, or to increase the producer’s bottom line, food adulteration – passing food off as higher quality than it is – occurs on a global scale.  (Think last year’s horsemeat scandal in Europe, the arrests earlier this year of Chinese traders selling rat meat as lamb, and a U.S. report stating that one-third of the fish sampled in a national survey was mislabeled.) Given limited resources and a complex global food system, more stringent regulation will only do so. In the meantime, experts advise consumers to ask lots of questions, buy from reputable sources and be suspicious of rock-bottom prices; if retailers can’t give you satisfactory answers, go elsewhere.

How food companies use nutritionism to sell more products: We’ve seen them on grocery shelves: heart-healthy chocolate chip muffins, probiotic ice cream, and water with added vitamins. Known as functional foods – they’ve been engineered to offer what their manufacturers claim are health benefits.  The functional food trend is rooted in an approach called nutritionism, described by food policy expert Marion Nestle in as reducing “the value of a food…to its single functional ingredient. This logic…fails to consider the complexity of food composition and the interactions amongst food components.”  In other words, vitamins added to a bottle of sweetened water aren’t going to give you the same benefit as consuming them as part of whole, unprocessed food.

In “That’s not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads,” author Gyorgy Scrinis digs into the way Big Food uses nutritionism to sell products and how product labeling helps or hinders consumers in making informed food choices. Scrinis argues that not only have food corporations become the main promoters of nutritionism, but, since the 1980s, they have come to control the nutritional agenda, pouring millions of dollars into political lobbying and directly funding scientific studies on specific foods and nutrients.  In addition, by engineering back into food the nutrients that processing removed in the first place, the industry sidesteps questions about the fundamental quality and value of its products.

What food stories have you been reading lately?