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Snake-oil versus innovation

Most farmers would scoff at the notion of replacing their nitrogen fertilizer with maple syrup.

But Manitoba Agriculture soil fertility specialist John Heard was able to make a convincing argument using some creative interpretation of data.

In 2009, Heard conducted a trial comparing the impact of a special “growth enhancer” derived from Acer negundo on canola biomass. The study showed biomass gains where the enhancer was applied were just as high as where 60 and 120 pounds an acre of nitrogen were applied.

One might conclude this product, also known as maple syrup, could replace nitrogen. But the check yielded just as well. Why? Because the plots were high in residual nitrogen.

“Sometimes data can be cherry-picked,” Heard said in an interview.

Every year some questionable products, often originating in the United States, vie for farmers’ money, he said. Some predict that could escalate as the federal government eases out its current role as efficacy enforcer over the next two years.

In another demonstration in 2002, University of Manitoba soil scientist Don Flaten and Rigas Karamanos, then with Western Co-operative Fertilizers, conducted the “Two Penny” experiment demonstrating how selecting positive results from a couple of sites can be misused.

Penny wise

Two pennies were planted with canola at nine sites across Western Canada. The test was replicated six times at each site. At Elm Creek, the two-penny plots outyielded the check by 45 per cent. The two pennies had nothing to do with the higher yield. The cause was random variability, which one time out of 20 results in a statistically significant response, Flaten said.

“If we sort and sift our data and show only data from that one trial in 20 we can make nothing look like something,” he said. “Whether it’s two pennies added to a plot or an ounce of maple sugar added per acre we can do these things.

“These are the sleight-of-hand techniques that can be used by someone who might be less than scrupulous or naively optimistic about their product. Farmers just need to be aware of those methods and keep their eyes peeled for that kind of misleading information.”

Flaten said he’s disappointed the federal efficacy requirements are disappearing, but he also recognizes the previous system was difficult to enforce.

It’ll be up to farmers, individually or collectively through their associations, to test new products, he said, especially in the wake of government spending cuts to fertility research and extension.

Fertilizing crops is the single biggest input cost for western grain farmers, Flaten said. Statistics Canada data shows farmers spent $2.3 billion in 2010, almost 50 per cent more than what was spent on pesticides.

The CFIA says the change will provide industry with greater flexibility, less red tape and faster product approvals and registrations.

“We will work with the industry to make sure they have a framework in place to ensure the efficacy and quality of products,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in an email. He noted the House of Commons agriculture committee has also recommended it.

The Canadian Fertilizer Institute, which represents fertilizer makers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers, is working with CFIA on the overhaul, but hasn’t formed a position yet, said institute spokesperson Catherine King.

“Some just feel buyer beware… and look out for yourself,” said Bill Toews, a former University of Manitoba soil science instructor and farmer. “I’m of the opinion there has to be a minimum regulation that prevents people from becoming completely snowed.”

Some like it

But others agree with the change. Having to prove a new fertilizer works just adds cost and delays commercialization, said Bob Friesen, CEO of Farmers of North America Strategic Agriculture Institute.

“When some people say it opens the door to snake oil salesmen, to me that’s code for saying we don’t want competition,” Friesen said. “Farmers aren’t stupid and farmers know for the most part whether someone is trying to sell them something that’s bogus.”

Companies won’t go to the time and expense of registering products if they don’t work, especially if they want to maintain their customers, Friesen said.

The Keystone Agricultural Producers doesn’t have a formal policy on the change, but it supports policies that encourage competition, said president Doug Chorney.

About the author


Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.



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