It’s easier than ever to sell snake oil as a fertilizer, supplement or replacement, so for farmers it’s “buyer beware,” warns Don Flaten, a professor of soil science at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s what I’d call the Wild West,” Flaten told agronomists attending an Agvise Laboratories meeting here March 18. “With the Wild West it means there’s no more evidence for effectiveness (needed).”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency used to require companies prove a new fertilizer was safe to use, and increased crop yields. Since May 2013 they only have to demonstrate products are safe. The federal government made the change to encourage entrepreneurs, but it also makes it easier for charlatans.
“The market is going to decide if products are good or bad and farmers will need to be more careful than ever about their purchase of farm inputs,” Flaten said. “They’ll pay for the failures themselves either through increased input costs or decreased yields or both.”
Flaten has wrestled with fly-by-night products for more than 30 years. With his tongue in his cheek, he declared he was going into business with a couple of partners so they could improve “their economy” and “help farmers reduce their income taxes.” Their company is called BSI — Baloney Science Incorporated.
“We will market products without telling any lies whatsoever and in some cases even with statistical analysis,” Flaten said. “We can put together a story that seems to work.”
- Video interview with Don Flaten: The difference between ‘snake oil’ and crop products that work
Flaten cited two studies to illustrate how data can be manipulated to distort the truth.
The Two Penny study, a replicated trial, showed planting two pennies per plot increased yields by 45 per cent. But it turns out that huge yield increase occurred at just one out of 23 sites. Statistically one or two trials out of 23 will produce erroneous results due to natural variability, Flaten explained. A snake oil salesman can present the results he likes and ignore the rest.
In another study, 20 plots were treated with Acer negundo extract and compared with an unfertilized check, a 60-pound-per-acre application of nitrogen, 60 pounds of nitrogen with Acer extract and 120 pounds of nitrogen with Acer extract.
In one plot out of 20 the crop treated with Acer extract (Manitoba maple syrup) combined with 60 pounds of nitrogen yielded as well as the plot treated with 120 pounds of nitrogen. Moreover, the land used in the trial was already high in nitrogen.
“There really wasn’t very much response to nitrogen at all,” Flaten said. “And there was absolutely no difference between 60 pounds of N with the extract and 60 pounds of N without the extract, but if I am selective with it I can show you that 60 pounds of N with the extract is equivalent to 120 pounds without. I’m not telling any lies here, I’m just being very selective with the truth.”
Farmers’ best protection is good research on and off the farm, Flaten said.
- Conduct research under conditions representative of your farm.
- Use unconfounded treatments with inputs applied at levels that are appropriate to answer the question.
- Replicate and randomize trials in plots or strips. Use several locations and years. And remember one or two trials out of 20 will give erroneous results.
- Use and interpret statistical analyses properly.
- Consider all the data and be alert for random erroneous differences.
- Measure scientifically sound factors that could explain cause and effect.
- Be open minded. Seek input from experts and colleagues.
Agronomists need to be cautious too, Flaten said.
“For agronomists, remember that your credibility is a huge asset and that once you lose it, it is very, very difficult to regain it.”