Growers want quicker action on hairy canola

Variety may be needed by producers to control flea beetles if the federal government bans neonic seed treatments

Gene editing may be the hottest technology in plant science.

With it, plant breeders can edit the genome of a commercial crop and achieve a desired trait more precisely and rapidly than old techniques such as mutagenesis.

Given that such technology exists, Paul Gregory is puzzled by the lack of progress on hairy canola.

“We have all this wonderful gene technology out there, why hasn’t this been really pushed and commercialized?” asked Gregory, president of Interlake Forage Seeds in Fisher Branch, Man., and vice chair of the Manitoba Beekeepers Association.

Several years ago, researchers at the Agriculture Canada research centre in Saskatoon developed a genetic trait called hairy canola. The trait causes hairs to grow on the stems and leaves of canola plants, which discourages flea beetles from climbing the stem and eating canola leaves.

The technology was never commercialized because it was a genetically modified trait, and seed companies weren’t interested in the regulatory hassle of registering a GM technology. Federal government scientists returned to the drawing board with the goal of developing a non-GM hairy canola.

Beekeepers and canola growers could potentially benefit from the trait if it was available in commercial varieties of canola. Earlier this year Health Canada proposed to ban the use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides used as seed treatments on canola, corn and soybeans. Neonics are also used in the horticultural sector as a foliar spray on fruits and veggies.

Neonic seed treatments for canola are primarily used to combat flea beetles, which feed on canola plants early in the growing season and can cause $300 million in damage annually.

If the seed treatments are banned, more growers may control flea beetles with foliar insecticides. That practice puts foraging bees at risk.

For Gregory, it’s frustrating that hairy canola is still in development.

“It would be wonderful to have a trait out there, where we are not putting out millions of pounds of insecticide in the environment,” he said.

“I think it’s so easy as an industry and growers to sit back and let (the companies) dictate…. I want the companies to know that we’re not happy with the status quo.”

In an email, an Agriculture Canada researcher in Saskatoon said federal scientists continue to study hairy canola.

“Under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership Canola Cluster, we’re just starting to work on a new project looking at natural resistance to flea beetles,” said Dwayne Hegedus.

“As such, we don’t have any research results at this point, but will be reporting out as we learn more.”

Bayer, which manufactures two neonic seed treatments and is a player in the canola seed business, is committed to collaborating with public sector scientists on flea beetles.

“We are prepared to explore a number of solutions that help provide protection to producers and have multiple projects targeted at flea beetle control as part of our R&D efforts,” said Chris Anderson, canola technology lead with Bayer Canada.

“Each trait/project needs to be assessed on its own merit, based on performance, value and alternatives already available or moving through our pipeline. We continue to support and value an integrated pest management approach, which includes the use of seed treatments, traits, crop rotation and in-season crop protection solutions, when required.”

Bayer may be open to all approaches for flea beetle control, but some producers believe that private firms need to move more quickly on hairy canola.

At a Keystone Agricultural Producers meeting held in mid-November in Portage la Prairie, Man., producers passed a resolution asking KAP to lobby companies to expedite the development of flea beetle-tolerant canola.

Chuck Fossay, Manitoba Canola Growers Association president, said there are alternatives to neonics on the market, but those seed treatments to control flea beetles are pricey.

Hairy canola isn’t a perfect solution, Fossay added, because the trait may be useful only for light or moderate infestations of flea beetles. Nonetheless, he supported the resolution.

Gregory, for his part, supports the use of pesticides in agriculture. However, if there is an opportunity to use fewer chemicals, he’s all for it.

“I strongly believe we need a good, strong suite of chemicals,” he said.

“We as an industry don’t want a ban (on neonics, but) at least let’s push for this hairy trait and some other cultural practices that can reduce flea beetles.”

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