Clusters of apples, big enough to cup your hands around, are no accident. They are the result of hand-thinning heavy crop loads in the spring or spraying at bloom time to inhibit pollen germination. These sprays must be applied precisely between 80 per cent petal fall and a fruitlet size of 16 mm.
Because apple fruitlets can double in size in four to five days, there’s a critical window on whether and when to apply a thinning product on which varieties. Empty the pockets of an apple grower and you’ll find some treasure: a caliper to measure fruitlets. To this day, apple thinning is equal parts science and art.
The COVID-19 crisis has revealed several fissures in all crop management systems. Difficulties continue in accessing agricultural workers to perform many seasonal and time-sensitive tasks. In the specific example of apples, if manual labour is not available, then growers must totally rely on chemical thinning aids.
But as Charles Stevens points out, access to new products such as apple thinners is also constrained under reduced capacity at the Pest Management Centre (PMC) based in Ottawa, Ontario. Given the mandate of the agency, its most recent spending figures seem meagre at $8.9 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Consider that the agency – under the auspices of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada -- is asked to perform trials for new minor use crop protection products and also mitigate regulatory challenges.
“The Pest Management Centre is under siege,” says Stevens. “The Canadian Horticultural Council is requesting a $5.3 million increase in its budgets just to keep up with inflation from the last decade.”
The pressure is intense for industry to winnow the A list of priorities because testing capacity was crunched from 37 projects to 10 projects in 2020. The choices must be spread between trials in weeds, entomology, pathology and biologicals. Furthermore, testing capacity is no longer available at two Canadian research centres now closed in Bouctouche, New Brunswick and Delhi, Ontario.
“Data is the new oil,” quips Stevens, as he surveys his orchard. “We need data to analyze grower use patterns, when growers use and how growers use crop protection products. We need better monitoring tools to evaluate properly.”
Jason Smith, a British Columbia blueberry grower, adds more context. He’s the chair, Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC) Crop Protection Working Group. He explains that the overall registration system managed by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) is responsible for managing re-evaluations as well as registrations. What’s needed to apply more realistic re-entry periods are trials with workers using gloves. A Post-Application Exposure Working Group chaired by CHC is working on this need, including representatives from the PMRA, PMC and CropLife Canada. This is the science that’s needed to reflect the practical use patterns of crop protection materials. These trials will cost millions of dollars to complete.
“These studies are just as important to find out safe re-entry levels,” Smith says. He offers the example of the recent registration of Danitol insecticide which knocks down a number of insects, including spotted wing drosophila. The label authorizes product use with a re-entry interval of three days for machine harvesting but 15 days for hand-harvesting. These are unworkable parameters in a practical harvest setting of different berry varieties maturing at different times.
In briefings by the Pest Management Centre earlier this year, horticultural representatives learned that budgets for the reduced risk pesticide program have been sliced from $1.2 million to $210,000.
“As blueberry growers in British Columbia, we recognize that the public wants more biologicals and we believe this is a great thing for integrated pest management,” says Smith. “But biologicals don’t always provide complete control and we need to learn how to integrate these products into our crop protection programs. There’s still a lot of work to do and things to learn to get the most benefit from these products.”
A perfect storm is developing in the near term for access to crop protection products for horticultural growers in Canada, chemical and biological. For lack of a few million dollars, the testing capacity for all new products will be strangled. The apple and blueberry examples are testament to how diminished regulatory capacity will affect day-to-day operations.
The Grower goes 'Behind the Scenes' of this story and speaks with Charles Stevens, chair, crop protection section, OFVGA. He discusses the restricted capacity at the Pest Management Centre to conduct toxicological trials needed to register crop protection products. To listen to the podcast, click here. >>