In a wave from east to west, fusarium head blight has drifted and shifted its way across Western Canada.
When it comes to Alberta’s history with the fungal foe, the battle to stop it by all means possible began in the late 1990s after a particularly bad few seasons of infection in the United States stretched into Manitoba, fanning fears it would continue its Canadian march.
As time and the pest progressed east to west, producers and the seed industry shifted their thinking from “keep it out and manage what is here” to “just manage.” The Western Producer’s editorial position on the legislation against the disease has moved, too.
The editorial opinion in the late 1990s and through the early part of this century was firmly on the side of fusarium being a pest serious enough that in 1998 we supported its inclusion in the Alberta Pests Act.
The regulation was timely in 1999, with 2020 hindsight.
Back then, after seeing what was happening in Manitoba and the northern Great Plains, the province of Alberta declared fusarium a named pest.
In some years fusarium graminearum and its resulting head blight has been responsible for an estimated $500 million in losses to North American agriculture. The mycotoxins it produces often render grain harvested during a severe outbreak to be hazardous to livestock.
Breeding has conferred some moderate resistance in spring wheat but for durum, moderately susceptible is the best that can be claimed. And only one winter wheat registered in Western Canada is resistant.
Improvements in fungicides and research into their application, along with a set of best practices, have lessened fusarium damage but in some regions producers avoid growing crops that can be heavily impaired by fusarium head blight. That reduces the potential diversity of options on their farms.
Fusarium remains a serious pest even when all available options are employed.
Choosing more resistant varieties and spraying crops when the conditions encourage blight development are among the only controls. Fusarium graminearum is so ubiquitous that it can be a problem anywhere when crop development and weather conditions are right.
In 1999 the Alberta strategy was to limit introduction and spread of the disease. By law, producers were responsible to prevent its establishment and prohibited from selling infected seed. The province could inspect farms, seed cleaning plants and land.
Producers were asked to test seed for all vulnerable crops. The result was that seed from other provinces was often shut out because it might contain detectable levels of fusarium.
However, treatments have long been an option to reduce the risk of infection from saved seed and those tools have steadily improved. Even so, wind and proximity to infected crops are principal vectors for spore movement. No matter how it arrived, the disease is now omnipresent.
Recent seed shortages in Alberta and reduced supplies of the latest genetics amplified complaints about fusarium’s pest rating among producers looking to expand their variety options.
Growers in Alberta deserve the same choices as those in other provinces so the recent removal of fusarium from the provincial list of named pests is welcome news.
Increased use of certified seed from newer varieties is expected to put more money into the breeding community and encourage investment in fusarium resistance.
Research in North Dakota has resulted in promising genetic finds that may lead to cereals with fewer infections and reduced inoculum.
Most importantly, Alberta producers will share the risks and rewards of prairie agriculture with their neighbours across the West and be free to manage accordingly.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.