Organic wheat dodges mycotoxin

Cody Straza doesn’t understand it.

Last year when fusarium head blight plagued thousands of conventional farmers in Saskatchewan, Straza and other organic farmers were seemingly protected from the fungal disease.

Straza grew kamut on his farm near Wood Mountain, Sask., and he had few issues with fusarium or the mycotoxins caused by the disease, such as deoxynivalenol (DON).

“It was tested for DON and it was accepted without any question,” said Straza, who is vice-president of SaskOrganics.

Fusarium hasn’t been a big issue this winter at organic production meetings in Saskatchewan, he added.

“In the organic world it’s not a priority issue. People are aware of it … but it’s not a hot button topic.”

The lack of concern is odd because fusarium and mycotoxins were a massive issue for conventional cereal growers in Saskatchewan last year.

The 2016 wheat crop was one of the worst on record for fusarium and DON levels in many crop districts on the Prairies.

The fungus affected all types of wheat, but durum was hit especially hard in Saskatchewan. Some growers are wondering if it’s still feasible to grow durum on their farm because many can’t meet the standards for mycotoxin contamination. Durum and other cereals must have DON levels below a certain level to enter the food or feed market.

“The risk of fusarium at this point is seriously, seriously impacting our ability to successfully grow durum wheat,” said Levi Wood, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and a farmer near Regina.

Will Oddie, who also farms near Regina, isn’t as worried. Oddie had a successful wheat crop on his organic farm last year, and it was “fusarium free.”

Oddie attended a workshop for Saskatchewan organic growers in March and the disease didn’t come up.

“I haven’t heard organic producers saying they’re going to avoid cereals, particularly wheat, for that reason,” said Oddie.

The experience of Oddie, Straza and other organic growers is remarkable, not only because wet weather provided ideal conditions for fusarium in Saskatchewan last year but also because organic farmers don’t use fungicides.

David Miller, a Carleton University chemistry professor and globally recognized expert in mycotoxins, said studies and farming experience shows that fungicides are critical when it comes to controlling fusarium and the related toxins in wheat.

“In areas where fusarium head blight is chronic, I would say it was impossible to produce flour at adequate DON levels in a risk year without fungicides,” said Miller, who has sat on expert panels for the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the U.S Food and Drug Administration.

“I don’t know how, nor does anyone else in the world know how, to effectively produce small grains in risk areas in risk years without fungicides. That’s a fact.”

If Miller is correct, organic wheat last year in Saskatchewan should have been loaded with mycotoxins, especially wheat grown in the southwestern part of the province, where fusarium was horrific.

But that wasn’t the case.

Tristan Gill, a commodity trader with Westaqua Commodity Group, an organic grain buyer in Vancouver, said vomitoxin was an issue for a few organic growers but it wasn’t pervasive.

Almost all of the organic wheat that he bought from prairie farmers had acceptable levels of mycotoxins.

“It didn’t seem to be a glaring problem.… It was nothing out of the ordinary,” Gill said, adding he spoke with flour mills in Regina, British Columbia and the United States that process organic wheat.

“None of them had any issues sourcing products, at all, because of vomitoxin.”

Gill admitted it’s “counter-intuitive” that farmers who don’t spray wheat with a fungicide would have lower levels of fusarium and mycotoxins, but that may have been the case in 2016.

Straza said farmers in his area are also puzzled. They don’t understand how the organic system seemingly protected cereal crops from fusarium.

“I’ve had conventional neighbours call me and ask what the difference is. I can’t really explain it,” he said.

“But there’s no evidence, no proof that one system is resilient to fusarium and the other isn’t.”

Myriam Fernandez, an Agriculture Canada scientist at Swift Current, Sask., said there are research studies from Europe showing organic systems do have lower levels of fusarium than conventional cereal crops.

“I’ve been working on fusarium head blight for more than 20 years,” she said.

“I’ve not been able to do the same work here in Canada.”

However, for years she has heard stories in Western Canada suggesting that organic growers have fewer problems with fusarium head blight than conventional farmers.

A research study into fusarium root rot found that fusarium fungi were present at higher levels in conventional than organic crops.

“It’s not only fusarium head blight. It’s also other diseases that are present at lower levels (in organic), and nobody knows (exactly) why that is.”

However, organic farmers in Canada aren’t doing research on fusarium head blight because they aren’t worried about it.

Straza heads up the research committee at SaskOrganics, and last fall the organization polled its members about research funding.

Farmers said they wanted SaskOrganics to support research on things like soil health, but fusarium wasn’t a priority.

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