Provincial legislation isn’t helping fusarium battle, say seed growers

Grower groups argue a zero-tolerance approach is the wrong way to reduce its spread in Alberta

Fusarium head blight on wheat spike.
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Fusarium graminearum is listed as a pest in the province, and that’s causing trouble for the crop industry.

Ward Oatway. photo: Supplied

“Now that it’s in the pest act, it’s hard to get it out of the pest act,” said Ward Oatway, chair of the Alberta Seed Growers Association and owner of Oatway Seeds in Lacombe.

His association, the provincial wheat and barley commissions, and others have been calling on the province to take fusarium graminearum off the Agricultural Pests Act. That would still leave the fungal disease under the Pest and Nuisance Control Regulation, which as its name suggests, is about controlling rather than eradicating a pest. (For example, the Norwegian rat is a pest but coyotes and magpies are nuisances.)

Fusarium graminearum was listed under the pest act in 1999, a few years after a major outbreak in Manitoba of the fungal disease, which reduces yield and grade and produces mycotoxins. That means there is zero tolerance for fusarium graminearum in grain seed, and seed growers are prohibited from selling seed with any detectable level of the pathogen.

“It’s hard because there hasn’t been any enforcement for it. You don’t want to break the law, so you test it, and you do it and you follow the rules as best you can,” said Oatway. “It’s harder in certain areas of the province where you have seed that has 0.5 per cent of fusarium and you can’t sell it.”

That’s despite the fact that seed treatments kill fusarium.

“If you treat the seed, the chances of fusarium being there is virtually none,” said Oatway. “That’s different from what we’ve been told in the pest act. If it’s present and you’re testing, it’s a moot point because you can’t sell it.”

Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier has been sympathetic to calls from farm groups and his department recently conducted a survey (which closed earlier this month) and has pledged to review the matter. However, several municipalities are opposed, said Oatway.

Downgrading the pathogen to a nuisance and dealing with the problem on a case-by-case basis is the better route, he said.

“As long as you’re treating your seed and testing the seed, you’re propagating it much less. We’re not looking for an accepted level. We’re looking for a flexible program — not just zero.”

For example, durum is a significant challenge for seed growers. Good durum seed can have one or two per cent fusarium in it, and be treated to remove the risk. However, under the current law, that treated seed can’t be sold in Alberta. That’s not the case across the border in Saskatchewan, where seed can contain up to 20 per cent fusarium before it is treated.

“With seed treatment, the problem is that fusarium on the seed does not mean that you will have fusarium on your crop in the fall — it just means that it’s present,” said Oatway, adding proper management and rotations are the keys to reducing the spread of the pathogen.

Moreover, fusarium was added to the act to stop its spread through seed, but the main way it’s transmitted is through crop residue — either when it’s blown into neighbouring fields or hitches a ride on equipment, he added. The main problem areas are south of the Trans-Canada, although it has been found in the Wainwright area, and is moving towards the Saskatchewan border.

“It’s not as pervasive as clubroot, but it moves with the environment, as well,” said Oatway.

“We get a wet year, and there’s more fusarium present.

“Back in the early 2000s, during the drought, we were getting fusarium hauled in (from other provinces) and fusarium on the bedding straw. That didn’t help the situation at all either.”

Having the disease in the pest act also prevents new crop varieties with better fusarium graminearum tolerance from being brought into the province.

At present, the industry has been educating people to test their seed. Only 20 per cent of the seed sold in Alberta is certified and has gone through testing, said Oatway. The vast majority of producers don’t test their seed if they are using farm-saved or common seed, which means that they could be spreading fusarium without knowing it.

“It’s not just the seed growers who have to worry about this. We’re the ones who have to follow the rules by law,” he said.

In order to prevent fusarium, producers should use pedigreed seed, test their own seed, and use good management practices, such as a four-year rotation, he said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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