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Alberta’s fusarium action plan

Grain seeds contaminated with fusarium.

Fusarium graminearum is listed as a pest under the Alberta Agricultural Pests Act. To control the disease and keep it from lowering grain yield and quality, the province of Alberta has an extensive management plan in place. But some believe the Fusarium Management Plan is be too restrictive.

Alberta’s Fusarium Management Plan was developed to limit mycotoxin production and subsequent grain contamination, prevent the spread of Fusarium graminearum into Alberta or from infected areas to non-infected areas of the province; and to reduce the economic impact of the disease on Alberta farmers.

“At first glance, the Alberta Fusarium Management Plan may seem like a good idea,” says Todd Hyra, Western Canada business manager with SeCan. “And it probably was, but not anymore. It’s now becoming a burden for Alberta’s seed growers and it’s responsible for Alberta farmers having delayed access to new genetics.”

One example Hyra highlighted was with the general purpose wheat variety Pasteur. Pasteur is a very high-yielding, very late-maturing variety that SeCan had targeted originally to the eastern Prairies. During 2010 and 2011 a great deal of interest for the variety started to come from Alberta. “We were unable to move seed into Alberta because it contained low levels of F. graminearum,” explains Hyra. “We had to start the multiplication process from scratch and Pasteur launched two years later in Alberta.”

When a variety is registered and the seed multiplication process commences, breeder seed is usually only available in very small quantities. “We will often have to heat-treat the seed lot for it to test negative for F. graminearum and then we typically would seed it in an area of central Alberta where we would not expect to encounter the disease,” explains Hyra. “But we are losing seed lots regularly now as F. graminearum is present into central Alberta, and this slows the multiplication process. Even if F. graminearum is detectable only at very, very low levels, we cannot use a seed lot in Alberta. It has to be discarded or moved out of Alberta and losing stock seed in this way is very tough for Alberta seed growers.”

Other provinces

Saskatchewan and Manitoba do not have the same regulations for F. graminearum on seed. “Although seed growers test their seed for F. graminearum, it is not a requirement of the Seeds Act,” says Hyra. “Seed growers are conscientious about maintaining their reputations as reputable and trustworthy suppliers in their local communities, so often, they have self-imposed restrictions on the levels of F. graminearum on their seed. Add to that the fact that growers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba will use the latest technologies in seed treatments to control the disease.”

Hyra fears that Alberta’s zero-tolerance on F. graminearum hurts pedigreed seed growers, and their customers, unfairly. “It’s not that growers using farm saved seed have an unfair advantage,” he explains. “It that it’s encouraging these growers to ignore the problem and that will lead to a disaster.”

For over 20 years, Manitoba growers have been using all the technologies and management strategies to control F. graminearum and reduce inoculum loads. They grow cereals very successfully, only having bad F. graminearum is list years on occasion. Hyra feels that loosening up the zero-tolerance regulations in Alberta will encourage farmers to test seed more, embrace the available technologies and management strategies that have been learned elsewhere and help Alberta keep a lid on F. graminearum.

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Tom Gräfenhan, research scientist at the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), reviews the CGC harvest samples for fusarium damaged kernels. Since 2009, when fusarium incidence in hard red spring wheat first measured over the one per cent level, incidence levels have been climbing. Looking at Canada Western Red Spring wheat in Alberta Crop Districts 1 and 2 in southern Alberta from 2009 to 2013 incidence levels have gone from about 10 per cent, in what was admittedly a bad year, to 25 per cent this past year, and in Canada Western Amber Durum, it’s even higher.

“Incidence is a measure of how widespread the disease is,” explains Grafenhan. “Severity, on the other hand, is based on the percentage of fusarium damaged kernels (% FDK) in affected samples. As one of several grading factors, the CGC uses tolerances for per cent FDK to determine grades of cereal grains.

In 2013, affected samples were generally less than 0.5 per cent infected which is considered low. The problem with these high incidence levels is that if conditions are supportive of fungal growth, and Alberta gets rain and warmer temperatures around cereal flowering time, then this disease can have a devastating effect on the crop,” warns Gräfenhan.

As a comparison, incidence levels in harvest samples of hard red wheat in Manitoba run around 45 per cent. Gräfenhan does not see these incidence levels declining, rather, the likelihood is that Alberta will mirror what happened on the eastern Prairies 10 to 20 years ago.

“In many ways, zero-tolerance for F. graminearum on seed creates a false sense of security,” says Gräfenhan. “Growers might be better served through education and adoption of the strategies farmers on the eastern Prairies already practise as standard operating procedures for growing crops that are susceptible to Fusarium graminearum.”

The Fusarium Action Committee undertook a science-based review of the Management Plan. Possible changes should be announced soon. “Knowing that the Fusarium Action Committee is actively working on options is something that will be well received by everyone from industry through to farmers,” says Hyra. “Alberta needs to be focussed on good, sound fusarium management practises and technologies to keep the disease in check.”

Andrea Hilderman has her master’s degree in weed science and is a member of the Manitoba Institute of Agrologists. She writes from Winnipeg, Man.

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