Fusarium can be managed if we work together

This month, the Alberta government announced that fusarium graminearum would be removed from the Pest Nuisance Control Regulation of the Agricultural Pests Act.

What this means is that the provincial strategy toward this devastating disease will focus on managing it rather than regulating it away completely.

An industry-led fusarium head blight (FHB) working group pushed for this change for some time. This was based on the general consensus that a zero-tolerance policy was never realistic and that a science-based approach to mitigation was a better option.

So, the government’s announcement was welcome news for our industry and a positive example of collaboration between industry and government.

But it doesn’t mean our problems have disappeared.

FHB is a well-established fungal disease affecting cereal crops. Consequently, infected grain has a significantly limited use for food and feed for livestock. Millions of dollars are lost annually in Canada in various sectors of the agricultural food and feed chain because of it.

In fact, what the government’s announcement means is that now it will be more important than ever for farmers to be diligent in managing fusarium using every resource possible.

The good news is that, as an industry, we have a wealth of experience, knowledge and resources to help us do so.

For starters, in Alberta, we have access to cutting-edge disease tests for your seed. A DNA test, offered through private seed-testing companies, will detect the presence of the DNA associated with fusarium graminearum in a seed sample in two days. This provides farmers with an early and important warning.

Another test, originally developed by the Canadian Grain Commission and available through private seed-testing laboratories, takes five to seven days, but gives a percentage of fusarium graminearum infection in each sample of 200 seeds to 0.5 percent.

Although farmers will have to pay out of pocket for these tests, modern technology makes them relatively affordable. You can get them both for less than $150.

We are also blessed with the technology to test for deoxynivalenol (DON) levels in grain samples — in levels of parts per million (PPM). This can then be compared to what levels are accepted by the food and feed markets domestically — eliminating a lot of trial and guess work.

Furthermore, our farmers have access to FHB-specific fungicidal seed treatments. These can greatly reduce risks associated with seedling mortality, reduced stand establishment, and the transmission of seed borne and soil borne fungal pathogens.

Finally, we are lucky to have research funded by check-off dollars, which has allowed our country’s leading agricultural scientists to delve into best management practices for controlling and preventing this disease. Farmers can access this information through their provincial commissions or government representatives.

We know that FHB will continue to be a problem, but at least now we have an opportunity to deal with it in a practical and proactive way. I know we are up for the challenge.

Let’s manage it.

Sarah Foster is 20/20 Seed Lab’s president and senior seed analyst, as well as a provincial adviser with the Alberta Seed Growers Association.

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