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Easing fusarium stance would be prudent move

The Alberta government is inching toward the possibility of removing fusarium from its Agricultural Pest Act, with the idea of developing a new management plan.

It’s a prudent move. It would have been prudent five years ago.

The province has launched a survey on how to tackle the most dangerous fungal disease in cereals, particularly wheat, to find out how it should proceed.

Opinions have already been offered that it’s time to act.

To be sure, fusarium can be a devastating disease. It has existed in Canada for almost a century, and while it has been beaten back, it has never been eradicated. The most damaging strain, F. graminearum, can cause heavy losses in grain yield and quality. Aside from losses to growers, fusarium can result in mycotoxins that affect livestock feed, the baking and milling quality of wheat and the malting and brewing qualities of malt barley.

It’s thought that in the last 25 years, annual losses due to fusarium range from $50 million to $300 million.

There have been several nasty outbreaks over the years, mainly due to infected seed, crop residues, rotations that include corn, and wet weather.

Fusarium falls under Alberta’s Agricultural Pest Act, which means there is zero tolerance for fusarium in the province. Any samples that test positive for even the most minute amounts may not be acquired, sold, distributed or planted.

Alberta placed fusarium under the act in 1999, when it was virtually non-existent in the province, with the understandable goal of keeping it that way. But as was inevitable, either through seed, soil, feed or even wind, fusarium took hold in Alberta. Over the last 10 years, it has been found throughout the province.

Early last year, 25 percent of all the grain tested in Alberta registered positive for fusarium head blight. In 2016, 11 percent of samples tested in Saskatchewan contained F. graminearum.

Saskatchewan allows samples of up to three percent fusarium to be used in the western part of the province, and up to five percent in the east.

Spread of the disease in Alberta isn’t so surprising, since the southern part of the province has irrigation, and dampness fosters fusarium growth. It’s also most commonly found in the black soil zone, which experiences more rainfall.

The Alberta Seed Growers Association says the zero-tolerance policy can actually be counter-productive, since growers can’t acquire new crop varieties that are more resistant to fusarium because they could not realistically be entirely free of the disease.

Removing fusarium from the Pest Act would foster greater emphasis on awareness, management and surveillance, the ASGA says.

Fusarium management is the most realistic approach. Crop rotation — at least two years between cereal crops — better variety choices (higher resistance seeds), fungicides (for suppression) and even some tillage (since fusarium overwinters in soil) should be stressed.

In southern Alberta, reducing irrigation at strategic times when wheat is flowering should also be considered.

The Alberta government’s survey is seeking feedback by Jan. 18 from a wide variety of parties, including agricultural fieldmen, service boards, seed-testing labs and various associations.

Input should be vigourous. The outcome on policy — and thus, how farmers do business — will be significant.

The survey can be found at bit.ly/2qGYSYM.

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