Confusing canola council tweet ‘bugs’ farmers

Tweet suggested council and Ducks Unlimited were partnering in agronomy project on beneficial insects

A tweet that suggested the Canola Council of Canada and Ducks Unlimited Canada were working together on an agronomy project prompted a firestorm of angry comments.

The tweet, posted on Feb. 1, was about a project on beneficial insects in wetlands, shelterbelts, and other insect habitats.

The idea of the canola council and Ducks Unlimited Canada working together angered a number of grain farmers, mostly in Saskatchewan and Manitoba — several of whom threatened to start having their checkoff rebated.

The canola council has since removed the tweet and apologized.

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“It wasn’t very clear communications and we apologized for that,” said council president Jim Everson. “It got a number of producers concerned about issues. We’ve heard these concerns being raised and so we will take the necessary time to review the concerns expressed and we’ll do it with our funding organizations and we’re doing that now. It started off with a message that was not clear.”

The tweet implied the project in question dealt with wetlands and carbon sequestration, when in fact, the project is about beneficial insects and non-crop areas, said Everson.

The beneficial insects project actually started in 2016, said pro­ject lead Paul Galpern, an associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Calgary.

The goal is to figure out how non-crop areas contribute to yield. There is some evidence that beneficial insects that live in headlands, shelterbelts and wetlands may offer a small yield benefit, he said.

“We’ve got an amazing diversity of insects in particular that live in these areas,” said Galpern. “We’re taking a number of approaches and the canola council has recently funded us to take a precision ag look at it.”

Galpern said he was sympathetic to the farmers who were concerned about the wetlands piece. Ducks Unlimited has provided $20,000 of in-kind contributions towards the project but it has no influence on the findings of the research and no producer funding is going to that organization.

“I am sympathetic to the farmers who have had bad experiences with wetland draining, but that’s not what the research is about,” he said. “We’re looking at wetlands because they are non-crop areas.”

And it’s worth knowing if a wetland area or shelterbelt might have a production benefit, he added.

“The idea is that these areas can provide habitat for insects,” said Galpern. “We’ve got evidence of that, and we’re now analyzing it.”

A ways away from the shelterbelts or wetlands, the researchers can see what Galpern calls “the halo effect.” Generally, there is a reduction in yield right next to the feature, and then a boost in yield.

The project brings up the importance of both agriculture and conservation, and how the two of them can work simultaneously together, he said.

“As a conservation biologist, I see that more than ever on the Prairies — this is a potential for agriculture that I call win win,” he said. “I really feel that in the 21st century, we have the technologies to evaluate nature’s contribution to people.

“This is a system where win wins are actually possible. We can continue and maximize food production while minimizing the impact. That’s what excites me about working with farmers. There is potential here.”

Throughout the project, Galpern has partnered with farmers, some of whom have put up exclosures to keep insects out of their fields, and see if it makes a difference to crop yields.

Other producers are sharing their precision yield data, so the researchers can examine patterns in the field. Two full-time researchers are looking at data involving remote sensing and precision yield. Producers from around Calgary, Lethbridge and Parkland County have participated in the project.

Galpern said that while the confusion around the controversial tweet was unfortunate, it has brought some attention to the project.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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