Oat acres in limbo

Starting next year, the two largest oat millers in Canada will only buy oats that are free of glyphosate.

That could cause oat acres to drop in 2021 and in subsequent years because some producers may refuse to grow oats or decide to grow less.

“I would suspect we could see a decline in acres. The farmers that still own swathers, they may stay with their half section or section of oats every year,” said Jenneth Johanson, president of the Prairie Oat Growers Association, who farms near Lac du Bonnet, Man. “Producers like myself… I don’t own a swather. On my own farm, my acres will decrease significantly, as much as probably 50 percent.”

In June, Richardson International told oat growers on its customer list, that it will no longer purchase oats if they have been treated with a pre-harvest desiccant.

The new policy takes effect January 2021.

“Richardson Milling will only source Canadian oats that have not been treated with a pre-harvest desiccant…. Our oat purchasing programs and their treatment of pesticides apply to all products and are not limited to glyphosate,” said Tom Hamilton, senior vice-president for agribusiness operations.

“There is growing consumer demand for processed oat products that are derived from oats that were not treated with a pre-harvest desiccant.”

“We developed our Richardson Pre Harvest Aid Free Program as a result of an informed business decision that was entirely based on customer and consumer demand.”

However, Richardson makes a distinction between its milling operations and other parts of its business. Richardson Pioneer, its grain handling and crop input division, will “market desiccant oats based on market demand,” Hamilton said.

“Oats that were treated with a pre-harvest desiccant will continue to be purchased and sold to customers that continue to buy oats on that basis.”

Richardson Milling is one of the major oat buyers in Western Canada. It has oat processing mills in Portage la Prairie, Man, Martensville, Sask., and Barrhead, Alta.

In 2015 Grain Millers, which processes oats in Yorkton, Sask., stopped buying oats that are sprayed with glyphosate before harvest.

With the two largest buyers taking a position, it could effectively end the use of glyphosate as a pre-harvest aid for oats.

“It’s a big, big chunk of the market that’s now going to be glyphosate-free,” said Scott Shiels, grain procurement manager with Grain Millers.

Some farmers may back away from oats in 2021 because they like having the option of pre-harvest glyphosate.

Many oat growers spray glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, to control weeds and dry down the oats before harvest. Then, they straight combine the crop at a later date.

Losing that option might mean an increase in costs. It costs money to buy a swather and there are significant labour costs to operate a swather. Plus, grain lying in the swath can get wet and reduce the quality of the oats.

To attract acres next year, buyers may need to increase oat prices.

“There are two things that (could) happen. Either they’re going have to pay more to source these oats, (to compensate) growers to take on more risk,” Johanson said. “Or there’s just going to be less supply.”

When Grain Millers introduced its no-glyphosate policy in 2015, they did get pushback from growers. Some farmers refused to work with the company.

“We did have lots of producers, especially in the northeast part of Saskatchewan, that said we can’t grow them without using glyphosate,” Shiels said.

However, Grain Millers has expanded its Yorkton mill and is now processing more oats than it did five years ago.

The company doesn’t offer a premium for glyphosate-free oats, but its pricing is competitive.

“We’re not always the highest price,” Shiels said. “But our pricing is there. Nine times out of 10 in this area, we are the top price.”

Many producers have adjusted to the Grain Millers policy and are successfully growing oats. Some use newer varieties that make it possible to straight cut, without pre-harvest glyphosate.

“Varieties have come out that are allowing (farmers) to let them stand and dry. They don’t shell out. They don’t lodge. You can let them stand and straight cut, without a big concern,” Shiels said. “That’s been key, in my mind.”

The Richardson decision wasn’t a surprise because treating grain with glyphosate before harvest has become controversial.

Consumer groups, particularly in the United States, have been pressuring General Mills and PepsiCo, the owner of Quaker Oats, about glyphosate residues in granola bars and breakfast cereals.

The Environmental Working Group published reports suggesting that residues of glyphosate are present in granola, instant oats and snack bars that are popular with kids.

“Glyphosate… was found in all but two of 45 samples of products made with conventionally grown oats,” the Environmental Working Group said in 2018.

“Almost three-fourths of those samples had glyphosate levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health with an adequate margin of safety.”

Given the public pressure, Johanson understood that change was coming.

“As a member of the Prairie Oat Growers, we’ve been having numerous conversations over the last three years with the grain companies and the milling companies. They’ve made it very clear that supplying customers with what they want, is very important to them,” she said. “We were feeling like the days were numbered for using glyphosate in oats as a pre-harvest tool.”

The controversy around glyphosate stems from a 2015 decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization. IARC scientists classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans. The IARC classification spawned thousands of lawsuits against Bayer and Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, as claimants said exposure to glyphosate contributed to their development of cancer.

Following the IARC decision, Health Canada, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators looked at the scientific evidence and concluded the herbicide is safe.

“No pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed,” Health Canada said in January 2019.

Richardson supports Health Canada’s stance on the herbicide.

“We firmly acknowledge that registered products, including glyphosate, are safe when used according to labels directions,” Hamilton said. “Our new program is simply intended to allow us to meet and manage our customer specifications.”

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