The removal of fusarium head blight from Alberta’s Agricultural Pests Act has sparked protests from farmers in the as-yet-uninfected northern parts of the province.
“My biggest concern is that we’re opening the gates to infect thus far uninfected areas of the province,” said Janice Reyda, who farms in the Peace Country near Brownvale. “Fusarium is a poison to animals, to humans, to anything that eats it. We should not be opening the gates to contaminate areas of the province that were so far not contaminated with this nasty fungus.
“They sold us out, as far as I’m concerned.”
Fusarium graminearum — the fungal plant pathogen that causes fusarium head blight (mainly in wheat and barley) — has been regulated under the Pest and Nuisance Control Regulation since 2002 to help control the spread of fusarium head blight in the province.
On June 3, the Alberta government deregulated it, saying in a release at the time that the zero-tolerance policy had “failed to stop its spread.” The change was welcomed by many farmers, particularly those in the more heavily infected parts of southern Alberta, who were struggling to source clean seed from other parts of the Prairies where fusarium is well established.
But in northern Alberta, where fusarium is present in small levels or not at all, the change has been protested by some — including Reyda, who is encouraging other wheat and barley producers to request their checkoff dollars back from Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.
“I’ve been telling people to protest — to get our wheat commission that’s supposed to be advocating for us to actually advocate for us to keep it out of our area of the province,” said Reyda, who is also a councillor of the Municipal District of Peace. “We still need some protection here.”
The MD of Peace currently has a notice about the protest on the home page of its website, a move that Reyda hopes will spur the government to divide the province and return to a zero-tolerance approach in northern Alberta.
“They said they couldn’t do that in the interest of red tape reduction — that they simply had to treat the whole province the same,” said Reyda. “Now we’re being sold out in the interest of red tape reduction? Are you kidding me?
“They want to treat the province evenly. Well, now we all have to play in an infected sandbox. I just don’t understand infecting the whole province like this.
“I’d still like to see them divide the province between the areas that have the infection established and those that don’t.”
A lost battle?
Even that’s unlikely to stop the spread of fusarium across the province, said Tom Steve, general manager of Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.
“The prevailing opinion a number of years ago was that you could prevent it by restricting the presence of fusarium in seed. History has shown that, that has not been particularly effective,” said Steve.
“In the Peace region, because it’s remote from the rest of the province, they feel that they can prevent the spread of the disease through a zero-tolerance policy on presence in the seed. That hasn’t proven effective anywhere else in the province.
“We’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the best way to manage it is to assume that you have it and then implement best management practices to control it.”
That’s been the strategy in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where fusarium is well established, he added.
“Some individuals take a different approach and thinking regulation is the way to stop the spread, but we think it’s more of a multi-phased approach,” said Steve.
“We’re really trying to promote a management plan around fusarium. It’s a primary focus of the commission in terms of research and extension activities.”
Seed testing is the cornerstone of that, particularly in the northern parts of the province where fusarium isn’t as prevalent.
“The management of it is upon farmers now,” said Samiya Fatima, disease diagnostician at 20/20 Seed Labs. “They have to control the disease to reduce their losses, and in the areas that have not seen fusarium yet, they have to test even more vigorously to contain the pathogen.”
Before, any wheat or barley seed sold had to be tested for fusarium, but that condition has been removed.
“Now testing is upon farmers, and I would hope they would put in that effort. You’re not bound to do it, but it’s good to do — like wearing face masks,” she said. “It could save you millions of dollars in yield losses.”
When sending seed for testing, farmers can opt for a plate test (which runs about $50 at 20/20 Seed Labs), but in areas where fusarium is present at lower levels, a DNA test is more sensitive and might be a better option.
“Since northern Alberta is quite free of fusarium still, it’s more important that they start with clean seed there so as not to introduce the disease,” said Fatima.
Few options for northern farmers
But given the way clubroot has spread in canola fields across Alberta, Blake Gaugler isn’t convinced farmers will do their due diligence to stop fusarium’s spread — and that could leave northern farmers with few options.
“Once you get north of Edmonton, the number of crops you can grow in a year drastically decreases,” said Gaugler, who farms near Hawk Hills, about 120 kilometres north of the town of Peace River.
“If basically all we’re growing is brassicas and cereals and we get both clubroot and fusarium because they’re left to spread unchecked, it’s going to cause some economic hardship up here for sure.”
Downgrading as a result of fusarium can cause revenue losses between $35 and $100 an acre, according to a study by the province in 2018, and in northern Alberta, that could be a farmer’s entire profit margin for the year.
“If there’s a loss of $30 to $100 an acre, that all of a sudden makes a lot of these cereals no longer profitable,” said Gaugler, who is also an agricultural fieldman for the county of Northern Lights. “Some years, a guy hopes to make $50 to $100 an acre, depending on the year. That’s all your profit gone.”
Given that, Gaugler is worried farmers aren’t getting the full picture of the risk fusarium presents in the province.
“We don’t like to believe we get government propaganda, but they’re painting it as this great picture — that the industry is only going to get better, that private industry is going to get more involved, and we’re just going to solve this problem,” he said.
“They’re painting everything rosy, but they’re not talking about the negatives. They don’t talk about what this could mean for our export markets or for our status as the highest-quality cereal producer in all of Canada and across the world. They’re not telling farmers, ‘Hey, you could lose $30 to $100 an acre.’
“They’re not talking about any of that. I would just like them to accurately present both sides of the argument.”
“There are a lot of management tools that are available — you can spray for it, you can apply seed treatment — but all those things cost producers money,” said Sexsmith-area farmer Corey Beck. So to now introduce it when you don’t have it, you now have an additional management cost.”
Steve acknowledges that “there’s an economic consequence” to fusarium.
“If it shows up in the shipments in any significant way, that’s certainly going to have a market impact and a price impact back to the farm,” he said, adding proper management can reduce that risk.
“The presence of fusarium graminearum at low levels in the seed is not indicative of what the crop will produce if it’s properly managed — and it’s been managed in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for many years at low levels.”
Balancing risk versus need
That’s been the key to balancing the risk of the disease and the needs of producers in other provinces, he added.
“It ensures that farmers have access to high-quality seed,” said Steve. “If it’s overregulated, farmers will end up going across the border into Saskatchewan to access seed because the rules are different there. They have a more flexible regulatory regime in terms of tolerances, as does Manitoba. Fusarium is just a reality in those jurisdictions.
“It’s all going to have some level of presence. It’s very difficult to keep it out.”
But Reyda doesn’t buy that argument.
“They could have sourced seed from areas of our own province that are fusarium free rather than smuggling infected seed across the border from Saskatchewan,” she said.
There’s also a risk that northern farmers won’t be able to source clean seed any longer, added Beck, who is also a councillor at the County of Grande Prairie.
“We don’t have a high level of it, but we get a lot of our seed stock from down south,” he said. “By deregulating it, it makes it tougher for us not to have seed that has fusarium head blight on it.”
At this point, though, northern Alberta farmers are left with few options to protect their operations, Reyda said. With the removal of fusarium from the act, municipal agricultural fieldmen aren’t able to enter fields if they suspect a fusarium infection if the farmer refuses them entrance.
But in making the change, the provincial government gave municipalities the authority to re-elevate fusarium as a pest within their jurisdictions.
“We’ve been advised that a bylaw is pretty much the only option we’ve got here now,” said Reyda.
“With a bylaw, they could get back in the fields again, but there’s always the issue of enforcement. Our municipality is very small, and we simply don’t have the resources for that.
“They’re not in the habit of hauling RCMP officers around as they’re going about their duties. It’s a pretty cumbersome way of handling things.”
That’s Beck’s concern as well.
“We want to make sure, if we do decide to look at something to protect the Peace Country from fusarium, that it’s enforceable,” he said.
It’s also unclear whether the government or the cereal commissions will be funding further surveillance and monitoring of the disease.
“It’s off the act now, so we don’t really care where the money comes from — we just want guaranteed, stable funding so we can get out there and do some surveillance and monitoring,” said Gaugler.
Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley have launched a website — managefhb.ca — to highlight the risks and share best management practices. Steve has also reached out to the counties “to indicate that we’d like to work with them collaboratively as opposed to having these debates over the internet.”
“We certainly did advocate for it, but we didn’t make the policy change,” said Steve. “Now we’re just trying to make the system work better by controlling the spread of fusarium through best management practices rather than regulation.”
That’s really the only option that Beck sees moving forward.
“We’re looking at how we can somehow keep ourselves somewhat fusarium free, but it’s inevitable when it’s deregulated that it’s going to work its way into the area,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how and when… Our path forward without regulation is going to have to be education.”
But for northern producers like Gaugler, that approach might not be enough to protect their operations from fusarium.
“The cheapest, best method for managing fusarium is obviously prevention — taking every precaution to never have it come on your farm in the first place,” he said.
“It sounds like it was more of a political decision than an actual look at the science. It’s not really clear what alternatives they looked at. It’s been muddy to say the least.”