Responsible use of technology

ALTHOUGH THE RISKS ARE FAR-OFF, PROTECTING FUTURE ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGY IS IMPORTANT

there is no doubt that farming is a technologically intensive business. From tractors that drive themselves to corn hybrids stacked with multiple traits, the technology in one field of grain could rival the computer science wing of a prominent university.

But, with all of these technological solutions comes technological responsibility. As news of poor compliance for refuge requirements and herbicide resistant weeds becomes more common-place, the industry needs to take a close look at how best to use the technology available.

is it getting more complex?
At the farm level, not everyone agrees on whether or not technology is more complex than it used to be a decade ago. Firmly in the camp that believes
farmers are facing the same level of complexity today as they were 10 years ago is Greig Zamecnik, Director of Business for horticulture and row crops with
Bayer CropScience.

“The rules and regulations for crop protection products have certainly evolved, but I don’t think they’ve changed drastically in quite sometime,” says Zamecnik. He extols the benefits of the Grower Pesticide Safety Program; “you have to do it every five years; you’re constantly updated.”

On the traits side, Zamecnik points out that refuge requirements have been in place for 15 years. “Everyone is aware of them but it’s just a matter of keeping up with the tweaks,” he says.

On the other side of the discussion is Tracey Baute, Entomologist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Gone are the days where we only had a couple of products with the same strategy,” says Baute. She believes that we’re currently in a grey area where there are lots of different products with varying refuge requirements; “it has become more confusing.”

Many others fall into the middle ground where they maintain that management for individual products is no more complex than in the past but admit that with so many products available, determining what to use can be challenging.

“It’s true that as more technology becomes available there are more things to consider,” says Chris Anderson, spokesperson for Monsanto Canada. But, he still believes that “many new technologies have made it easier to use them in responsible ways.”

responsible use
Regardless of whether or not the experts and industry representatives agree on the level of complexity, they all agree that using technology responsibly is too important to overlook.

For John Van Dorp, a cash crop and hog producer from the Woodstock area, the greatest incentive for using technology responsibly is the risk of losing it. “Developing resistance is the real risk,” says Van Dorp. “It’s a big loss if we lose this technological advantage.”

Baute echoes Van Dorp’s concerns saying, “if we lose technology, everyone loses: the farmers, the companies and  the environment.”

Beyond concerns of developing insect and weed resistance to available technologies is the risk of increased and prohibitive regulation. Currently, every novel trait must be approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). To gain approval, each trait requires a stewardship plan; if there is a poor stewardship compliance, it is within the CFIA’s mandate to cancel approval of products.

“Ultimately,” says Anderson, “the tool the government has to ensure compliance is to take the technology away.”

long-term focus
Despite these risks, it is easy to slip into irresponsible use patterns – neglecting to plant refuge acres or over-using herbicides like glyphosate. All of the risks associated with using these technologies irresponsibly are long-term outcomes. For farmers and corporations alike, it’s challenging to consider these long-term implications when so much is riding on the short-term bottom line.

“The industry has a good track record of coming up with solutions,” says Jarek Nowak, Business Manager of Mycogen Seeds, a division of Dow AgroSciences. But, Nowak continues to explain that although the popular opinion that the industry will develop new solutions is tempting, it is important to resist relying on the unknown. “Take the long-term view and assume there is no solution,” he continues. Although he admits this is a challenging perspective to embrace, he thinks it will help ensure proper use of available technology.

Zamecnik shares a similar opinion and points out that “the advancement of new technology is happening at a slower rate.” With increasing global regulations, he says “it just takes longer to find a product that fits all of the parameters.”

chain of responsibility
With the risks in mind and a long-term focus in the forefront, it becomes clear that the responsibility of ensuring our current technologies are around for the years to come lies with everyone in the industry.

“It’s a joint responsibility,” says Van Dorp. “I think the salesman that’s selling the grain should be sure to remind the farmer what’s needed.”

The corporate representatives all agree with Van Dorp; Zamecnik, Anderson and Nowak all emphasize that it’s important for companies to educate and make farmers aware of the stewardship requirements that accompany each product.

“The surveys we’ve done have shown that growers look to the companies for this information,” confirms Baute. “The companies are the last ones to hand the product to the grower and at that point they have the opportunity to clarify and to explain.”

However, farmers also play an integral role in the chain of responsibility. “The onus also goes to the buyer,” says Van Dorp. “They need to realize that it’s a special product that has special growing requirements.”

“All participants have a role to play,” says Anderson. “But, at the end of the day, only farmers can make the right decisions for their own farms,” he concludes.

making the right decisions
For Van Dorp, the right decisions for his farm come not only from following product-specific requirements but also from following a farm-specific plan.

“The complexity comes back to whether or not you need that trait in your field,” he says. To ensure he is choosing products that make the most agronomic and economic sense on his farm, Van Dorp conducts his own trials. “It comes down to testing on an individual farm level. You have to do test plots on the land you’re going to make a living on.”

On Van Dorp’s farm, this approach ensures he is only using the traits and technologies necessary for his fields, reducing exposure of unnecessary technology to insects, pathogens and weeds.

looking forward
Although Van Dorp’s approach may not be practical on all farms, simply following product-specific regulations and abiding by basic agronomic practices such as chemistry, variety and crop rotation can help ensure technologies will continue to be effective in years to come.

As new technologies are continually released, it’s unknown whether or not things will continue on this train of increasing complexity or if new products will focus on making things simpler on the farm.

Nowak believes things will get simpler because “the industry is responding quite well to growers’ challenges. They are bringing solutions to the marketplace that will make things easier for growers.” Both, Zamecnik and Anderson endorse this opinion as they believe that the long-run will see new technologies make things simpler for farmers.

However, Zamecnik does believe that there may be challenges in the short-term. “In the long run, it will be simpler. In the short run, there will be a learning curve.” •