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Editorial: Human nature

It’s one of those philosophical questions — can there really be too much of a good thing?

In the case of glyphosate it would seem the answer might be yes, especially when it comes to crop residues.

There’s little doubt why so much of the product is used here in Western Canada. It’s nothing short of a minor miracle in a jug for farmers throughout the Prairies.

Cheap, effective and safe, the non-selective sees action every year on millions of acres. From the spring burn-off before seeding to in-crop applications and through to fall weed control, it’s ubiquitous on the region’s farms. That’s hardly unique; the product is the world’s most widely used pesticide.

Now however, it’s under more scrutiny than ever before, and there’s greater consumer push-back, as discussed during a recent meeting of the Keystone Agricultural Producers.

From lawsuits (and now rulings) claiming it’s a cancer-causing product to its use as a non-tariff trade barrier, in some ways it seems like the party is over for glyphosate.

If the punch bowl really is being taken away, however, there’s plenty of blame to go around and some of it must fall squarely on the farm gate and human nature. When a product is this good and this versatile, it’s always going to just be a matter of time before it’s overused or misused.

The biggest grey area is the use of glyphosate to hasten dry-down in crops to ease harvest. Why it’s happening is a no-brainer. A quick pass with the sprayer kills the crop allowing it to dry down more quickly and evenly. The cumbersome task of swathing it is eliminated, along with the risks of leaving a crop in the windrow subject to the vagaries of fall weather.

The practice cuts labour, reduces fuel consumption, standardizes quality, and makes harvest simpler and faster.

Unfortunately, it’s also little wonder the practice is running into problems. For the practice to stay on the safe side it has to be managed as a fall weed control effort, with the side benefit of improving harvest ability, rather than quicker harvest as the end goal.

Farmers are supposed to wait until even the least mature plants are only 30 per cent green. To go any sooner than that risks the accumulation of glyphosate residue in the grain kernels above the maximum residue levels, and is in violation of the product’s own label restrictions.

Viewed in this way, the question clearly wasn’t if there might be issues, but rather when they would arise.

It could be through simple error. In the rush of harvest it’s entirely possible to miss a few green patches when evaluating a stand.

It’s also equally plausible to see an individual knowingly cut a corner here and there during a late harvest.

And despite the best efforts of the various value chains to inform farmers of the risk, it could also be a lack of knowledge. When a product is this widely used and is, within the farm community at least, viewed as safe and low risk, it can become a situation of familiarity breeding indifference.

That not only should change, it must change, or farmers could soon see one of their best and most effective weed control tools challenged by a tough new opponent — the marketplace itself.

It is a wilier opponent because it’s an entirely different creature. In the past, the fight has largely been with partisan groups on the fringes, rather than with the customer base at large. Here feelings and impressions are always going to matter as much or more than science.

The reality is that you cannot force anyone to put a product in his or her grocery basket; they have to choose it themselves. Many things inform that decision, from price to product placement, and any negative impression is going to be a barrier. Food marketers know this, and they’re quick to exploit any perceived problem to their own advantage.

As a farmer you might be frustrated by ludicrous claims, such as the bottled water that sported a ‘gluten free’ sticker, but that’s the market reality in which you’re doing business. Already there’s one outfit promoting a “glyphosate residue free” label that’s responding to this public perception.

The industry value chain here in Western Canada has long been a champion of meeting this sort of nonsense with clear-cut scientific research and the practical call for “science-based solutions.”

But with that positioning comes the responsibility of ensuring those standards are met. Of those standards, there are few more basic than following the label instructions for a powerful crop protection product that have been set by a government regulatory agency after rigorous testing.

Failing to do so is the equivalent of scoring on your own net.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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