The problem, my friend, is blowing in the wind

Organic events:

High winds in September damaged crops, bins and buildings. It also moved swaths, especially canola swaths. This is a problem to the people who count on the yield from those swaths, but it is also a problem for where those swaths and airborne seeds landed.

Organic standards strictly prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms in organic production. For organic farmers, that means canola can be a problem weed. Canola seeds in a crop sample can prevent an organic sale.

For an organic farmer who knows a field has been contaminated with canola seed, due diligence might include the following:

  • spring tillage to kill early germinating canola plants
  • limiting the crop choices to large seeded crops where seed cleaning can remove canola seed
  • roguing canola plants out of the desired crop
  • not selling screenings from that field if canola plants go to seed

Unfortunately, volunteer canola is a persistent weed. Studies in Western Canada suggest that more than 40 percent can survive a year in the soil. In Quebec, studies suggest canola persists as a weed five years after production.

Considering that any of these volunteers might escape control and restart the cycle, volunteer canola can be a long-term problem.

Escaped canola is not only a problem for organic farmers. It can also interfere with herbicide rotation and effective spring burn-off in non-organic farming.

Who should shoulder the responsibility for the extra work that is required to remove volunteer canola plants and the opportunity costs from avoiding crops where canola can be a problem?

Perhaps a similar situation would be informative. Who should be responsible to come and get a cow that breaks through the fence and settles into the neighbour’s crop? Most people would say the person who owns the cow.

The “person” who owns the canola has been legally established as the agricultural company that patented the genes it contains.

Organic farmers that I talked to clearly indicated that they have no quarrel with their neighbours who grow canola. However, they feel that the biotech companies who assert their ownership over the seeds should come and clean up their messes.

Significant numbers of canola seeds in the wind is a relatively rare problem, though smaller numbers surely “escape” every year.

A bigger problem for organic producers is one of spray drift. The problem grows as more chemical applications are used, spray equipment gets larger and more spray is applied by airplane.

Organic farmers require at least eight metres between their organic crops and ground that is treated with prohibited substances such as herbicides and pesticides. This distance allows producers to avoid contamination of their crop from minor spray accidents on the part of the neighbours.

Organic farmers are also required to register with the rural municipality office as organic. Spray plane operators are required to check with these offices as to the location of organic farms, and to avoid over-spraying organic land.

Despite these precautions, incidents do happen that can result in land being de-certified. It must then undergo a transition period of three years before crops can qualify for organic status. Liability is often assessed to the spray applicator.

Organic farmers are not the only people to suffer from misdirected sprays. Beekeepers, people with environmental sensitivities and aquatic environments all suffer from spray drift. Some people suggest that the growing incidence of cancer in rural communities is also a reflection of increasing “off-target” spray damage.

The Canadian Organic Standard is about process. It is up to producers to perform all the due diligence they can to prevent contamination of their products. This includes being careful with products that come into the farm, buying organic seed, or if that is unavailable, at least using seeds that aren’t genetically modified or treated with prohibited substances. It includes having buffer strips that limit and detect spray drift. However, there is little that can be done to prevent herbicides in rainwater or transgenic seed falling from the sky.

Organic status remains the best way to minimize exposure to pesticide residues and GM products.

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