COVID-19 impacts agricultural research

COVID-19 is forcing agricultural researchers into a quandary. Much of the specialized white protective gear normally worn when dealing with chemicals is also in demand from the medical community. “Researchers are in a moral dilemma,” according to Tom Wolf, proprietor of Agrimetrix in Saskatoon. His company specializes in conducting research on spray applications. Obviously, Wolf and his white-clad crews go through a lot of protective apparel every summer while conducting trials. “But maybe not this summer,” says Wolf.

“In the face of what’s happening with the corona virus, I question our purchase of protective gear, which could instead go to hospitals to save people’s lives. So that means we may not conduct any trials this summer that involve active chemicals.”

Wolf says he has two major projects scheduled for this summer, one funded by the Western Grains Research Foundation.

Normally, by now Wolf would have his supply of petri dishes, Tyvek suits, Nytril gloves, 75 litres of ethanol solvent and various other pieces of lab gear.

“All these items have gone up in price and supply is definitely lacking. First of all, it’s going to be expensive to run trials this summer, if we even can.

“Second, I’m thinking seriously about the moral implications of depleting supplies of items hospitals may need later this summer. At this point I have not placed any orders. I have not resolved this conflict.

“I’m talking to other researchers in the same boat. And we’re all actively discussing what we should tell our funding agencies, because they’re part of this dilemma too.”

As of press time for this issue, Wolf and his colleagues in the research community are taking the situation week by week, as are the funding partners. He says some of the simplest things have become major obstacles, such as driving a crew to the field sites. For us, laying out samplers and plots is a two-person job. If social distancing is the rule, how can the plots be established and managed over the summer?

“Another factor is that the whole research community is collaborative. We share and work with different organizations. All the private corporations we work with shut down travel and personal contact long before the government imposed restrictions. They are quicker to respond to situations and I think they’re more cautious.

“But I’m not sure how quickly they’ll want to get their toes into the water again. This corona virus might be with us for a while. We may be looking at a major long-term impact on ag research.

“I can press the order button anytime. It’s my personal decision. The question is, should I?”

At the University of Manitoba, soil scientist Don Flaten says the issue of protective gear really isn’t a big factor for research carried out by his graduate students.

“Very little of our soil work involves chemicals, so we’re not feeling the impact. When we do have to use chemicals, the department has a stock of the re-useable suits. The worst that could happen in soil science is we get a little dusty or muddy.”

Winnipeg’s Even-Spray and Chemicals is one of Manitoba’s main suppliers of spray applicators protective gear. Ian Martinsen has not seen a significant increase in safety suit purchases.

“The suits we sell for chemical resistance are not the same kind of suits required by hospitals. I don’t know what the difference is technically. But I do know we have a good stock of chemical applicator suits, and we haven’t seen anyone buying them for medical reasons. These are the disposable type. One or two days, then they go in the trash.

“Masks are a different story. Again, our applicator mask is different than a medical grade mask, but they’re gone anyway. We can’t even get masks any more. They’ve all been bought up by hospitals, and that’s the way it should be.”

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