Changes in agriculture are coming your way

These production challenges mean we’ll all have to stay sharp through the 2020s

Just because we can predict many of the production challenges heading our way doesn’t mean they’ll be easier to avoid, or that they’ll be easier to manage. In fact, by the time the new decade starts winding down in 2030, Canadian producers will have their hands just as full as they are today, if not fuller.

What challenges? It’s a long list.

Many that producers face now such as fusarium head blight, clubroot and soil-borne pathogens like Aphanomyces are not going away in the next 10 years. New diseases and pests are likely to show up and more weeds will develop resistance to herbicides, increasing the urgency to find alternative ways to manage them. Integrated weed management (IWM) solutions will be essential to stay ahead of the problem.

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In other words, we might as well get good at IWM now. It’s going to be with us for a long time.

Charles Geddes, a weed ecologist and research scientist at Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, says there are currently about 75 unique herbicide-resistant weed biotypes in Canada. On the Prairies, Alberta has 26, Manitoba 23 and Saskatchewan 21.

The resistance challenge

Those numbers will increase, and Geddes says herbicide resistance will prove one of the main challenges in conventional cropping systems over the next few decades.

After herbicide-hesitant crops were introduced, chemical companies shifted away from trying to discover new active ingredients. Now that weed resistance is becoming a greater concern, they are starting to put more investment back into that discovery process, but there are few new chemistries in the pipeline.

“That is a big question mark,” Geddes says. In the past, new chemicals have gotten farmers out of the weed-control corners they found themselves painted into. But that was then, not now.

The most important thing producers can do today and in the next decade is to take a longer-term, proactive, integrated approach to weed management.

“Along with that, there has to be a change in mindset to a preventative approach compared to a reactive approach,” Geddes says. “Taking this type of approach also results in a healthier agro-ecosystem, which will be more resilient to weed pressure and help mitigate the selection pressure for herbicide resistance.”

For the coming decade, Geddes sees more investment in surveying and monitoring for weed resistance so that earlier management strategies can be implemented. He also sees more work to quantify the economic impact of adopting the strategies on the farm.

Long-term weed control

“One of the really important parts to facilitating the adoption of these alternative approaches is investment in understanding the economics of implementing them,” Geddes says. “That’s not necessarily just the economic perspective of net income this year or next year, but net income 10 years down the road, when in the absence of implementing some of these tools, you could potentially have another herbicide-resistant weed biotype on the farm that will increase the cost of weed management later on.”

Geddes refers to a U.S. study which shows that proactive weed control can generate more profit.

“While there’s a somewhat greater investment at the beginning when implementing a proactive approach, when you don’t have a herbicide-resistant weed, it flips later. By preventing that herbicide-resistant weed biotype on your farm, you start seeing improved net returns down the road.”

The barcode of life

Bruce Gossen, a research scientist at AAFC’s Saskatoon Research and Development Centre, says that when it comes to managing pests and diseases in field crops, technology is progressing so rapidly that the future is now.

Technologies can now monitor a crop’s environment, diseases, growth stage, cultivar resistance and nitrogen status. These can be integrated with other technologies that calculate the probability of disease infection and recommend specific fungicides and spray timing.

Gossen says these technologies will evolve and advance as they incorporate new detection and diagnostic tools based on molecular technologies for rapid disease identification.

It is already possible for automated systems to detect airborne spores of plant pathogens based on their DNA. A monitor in the field detects the arrival of pathogen spores and relays the information via cellular networks back to a crop-monitoring system which could provide an early warning if pathogens reach levels that need control.

These technologies make use of emerging resources like the International Barcode of Life (iBOL), a research alliance involving 24 countries building a DNA barcode reference library, informatics platforms and analytics protocols to rapidly identify a wide range of species worldwide. The technology could allow a farmer to instantly identify any pest or pathogen with a smartphone.

Chemical sensors are already available to detect the chemical signature of plant pathogens in imported food crops, and may one day be used in fields to detect the chemical signals that plants emit when they are under attack from disease, insects or stress, Gossen says.

Also, as the genomes of more plants and pathogens are sequenced, marker-assisted breeding will be used to develop new disease-resistance tools which may prove more durable than some of the ones now used by farmers. Early pest detection and more resistant crops will facilitate reducing synthetic pesticides or replacing them with bio-pesticides that pose a lower risk to the environment and will slow the development of pesticide resistance.

Still on the horizon but advancing rapidly is RNAi gene silencing, which can be used to turn certain genes on or off in pathogens to help plants fight disease, deter insects or interfere with the expression of herbicide-resistance genes for better weed management.

Smaller fields, more precision

Gossen sees more driverless technology employed on farms, especially as it allows for longer battery storage of locally produced solar energy. That could allow for unmanned seeding and harvesting operations and for applications of pesticides on hot spots in a field any time of day or night.

Gossen believes that as the technology to analyze, interpret and present big data improves, we will also see improvements in long-term weather forecasts and precision agriculture functions. And driverless technology could drive a return to smaller fields and equipment to allow for greater bio­diversity through implementing practices like intercropping and strip tillage, which benefit soil health and encourage natural enemies of pests and diseases.

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Angela Lovell

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