Reducing blackleg key to increased trade

Curtis Rempel has a win-win proposition for Canada’s canola industry.

If farmers, agronomists and plant pathologists can reduce blackleg levels in prairie canola fields, both exporters and growers will benefit.

“All of us can see the numbers that incidence of blackleg has been increasing over time. So they (the Chinese) become more and more concerned about the introduction of blackleg by seed dockage,” said Rempel, vice-president of crop production and innovation with the Canola Council of Canada.

“One way to mitigate risk to China is to start focusing on lowering levels of blackleg in the field…. While this is good for stable and open trade (with) China, I would submit … it’s also good for us. It increases our yield, it increases our profitability.”

Canola to China was the biggest story in Canadian agriculture this summer.

China was threatening to shut the door to Canadian canola imports over concerns that traces of blackleg in shipments could contaminate the Chinese rapeseed crop. China was concerned about dockage: the amount of foreign material shipped with canola seed.

In September, the two countries reached a three-year agreement to resolve the blackleg issue, temporarily. However, Chinese officials are still watching blackleg in Canada.

“One of the reporting requirements, on a yearly basis, that facilitates trade with China is that we report our disease levels in Western Canada,” Rempel said.

Blackleg disease levels have escalated on the Prairies over the last five years. Incidence, or the percentage of plants with blackleg in infected fields, topped more than 30 percent in Alberta this year. Manitoba incidence has been in the teens in recent years and Saskatchewan is at seven to eight percent.

Rempel thinks the industry can get back to blackleg levels of the early 2000s, when incidence was two to three percent.

“If we go down to low levels, like we historically had, that probably means seed and dockage levels are very, very low,” he said.

“It’s good for us and it shows we are doing things to mitigate risk for China.”

The question is how.

Dilantha Fernando, a University of Manitoba plant pathologist, believes rotating genetic resistance to blackleg is the key. Existing varieties of canola have different resistance genes, and new genes are in development.

“In my mind, this R gene rotation will hopefully reduce blackleg substantially over the next three years, if we start doing this in 2017,” Fernando said.

“With more genes coming along, we can introduce more groups (of resistance) and have a better strategy moving forward.”

Genetic resistance is important, but crop rotation is also critical. Many farmers now grow canola on a two-year rotation, and blackleg thrives in a tight rotation.

“If everyone was to grow canola once every four years, I don’t think we would have a blackleg problem,” said Ralph Lange, a plant pathologist with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures.

“You’ve got to keep that in the back of your mind.”

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