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Managing micronutrients

With a wide variety of products for crop nutrition, seed and protection, farmers have more supplement and micronutrient choices than ever. Photo by John Dietz.

Cautious optimism is likely a good way to approach the new products section for any local ag retail outlet, according to veteran agronomist Norm Flore.

Flore has been involved with agriculture, fertilizers and research in Western Canada for 35 years. Currently, he provides agronomic services in retail outlets for Crop Production Services (CPS) in southern Alberta. CPS has a wide range of products for crop nutrition, seed and protection. The shelves are more packed than ever.

“There is a barrage of products that farmers are faced with right now, and they have a wide range of claims associated with them,” Flore says. “Our customers, often in conjunction with an agronomic advisor, have to sort through that, especially new products. There’s always been a lot of products out there, but the rate for new introductions seems to be increasing or spiking.”

He’s right. Before April 26, 2013, the federal Fertilizers Act Regulations contained quality and efficacy requirements for fertilizer and supplement products. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) enforced these regulations by conducting pre-market efficacy assessments, verification of performance or benefit claims and monitored for product quality in the market. It also required regionally based efficacy data.

It reviewed all labels being planned – and took up to three years doing it – to protect customers. If a label claimed a product could improve yield, the agronomist and all customers knew the label claim had hard scientific data.

Those CFIA practices were discontinued as of April 26, 2013. The CFIA process for registration takes the same amount of time today, but the scope is narrower.

In principle, according to the CFIA, this new flexibility supports innovation, reduces burden and expedites delivery to market for safe fertilizers and supplements.

Theresa White, a Monsanto Canada regulatory officer in Ottawa, offers this insight: “The registration-approved stamp means that the product has been assessed by CFIA for safety for human health and the environment and is safe when used according to the approved label information. 

“The CFIA also reviews product labels to verify that requisite information, such as guaranteed analysis, directions for use, company/manufacturer contact information, appropriate units of measurement, and mandatory cautionary statements, correctly appear and are clearly legible on the label.”

Each product registration is valid for three years, after which is must be re-registered. The categories and registration numbers on the CFIA website (www.inspection.gc.ca) can be summarized into four categories: farm fertilizer (50), fertilizer-pesticide (30), micronutrient (335) or supplement (392).

Recently, the number of registered supplements has been increasing: in April 2013 the number sat at 291; in September 2015 it increased to 366 with another jump to 392 in October 2015.

Registered micronutrients change, too. Twelve micronutrient registrations were issued in the first 10 months of 2015. The companies with most total registrations, as of October 2015, included: Nutri Ag Ltd. (31), Terralink Horticulture (31), Cameron Chemicals (21) and Winfield Solutions (19).

The big registration activity recently has been on the other side – registrations for supplements, that is. As of October 2015, the posted list shows 216 active supplement registrations predating 2014 and going back many years. However, 53 new registrations were issued in 2014. Another 74 were issued in the first 10 months of this year.

Buyer beware
For Flore, the issue comes down to data. If a new product has lots of local data, he probably will try it and encourage customers to try it. If it doesn’t have that, it’s time to be cautious.

“To go through the registration process now, you don’t have to show product efficacy at all. In a lot of cases, it’s simply claims being made for a product. There’s a lack of good hard scientific research to demonstrate the effectiveness of some products,” the senior agronomist says.

For new products, he tries to keep an open mind. He looks for the science behind the label claim, but allows for customer influence. If a grower is interested in something new, Flore eagerly coaches the grower to test the product in the local environment.  He believes newcomers to the market should have a fair trial.

“Yes, I tend to be skeptical on many of the products that are introduced especially if there are no claims on the label or a lack of performance results in the local area,” he says. “Still, I encourage customers to give it a try. I like being in the field with growers. I say, let’s try it in this environment where it has the best chance of working. I’ll monitor it. I’ll even do some crop yield and quality assessments to get a handle on whether a product is working.”

Product introduction time is a good time to ask if some product is available at no cost – select suppliers offer some product at no cost in exchange for some data on its performance.

A fair trial, Flore suggests, can be in proportion to a farmer’s confidence in the likely benefit from a new product. For example, he suggests, if there’s a 20 per cent chance of a benefit, try it on up to 20 per cent of a field or a crop.

“Talk to the reputable local agronomist and the input supplier to learn what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard, in the area, about the product or the type of product. We don’t have all the answers, so I encourage quality on-farm testing,” he says.

Or, after consulting a bit, perhaps buy the smallest jug or package available. In most cases, one container is enough to get a feel for the product performance.

“Work with an agronomist to help you select the right product, right field, the right crop, the right timing, the right application method to do things as well as possible. Then, use GPS technology and do 20 or 40 acres. You know exactly where it’s at and you can assess the yield,” he says.

“We can’t wait now for third-party research to cover off all these different products, it’s just not happening. There’s very little independent third-party research left out there, so it goes back to growers to do their own testing.”   

BioAg Alliance activity growing
Novozymes and Monsanto lead the registrant activity for micronutrients and inoculants. They account for 108 of the nearly 400 registered products in the CFIA list of supplements as of October 2015.

 

The two companies formed BioAg Alliance in February 2014 with a mandate to provide sustainable bioagricultural solutions. Many of the “me-too” new registrations for Monsanto reflect its new access to Novozymes technology.

The companies say the BioAg Alliance is meant to bring the capabilities of Novozymes in microbial discovery, development and production together with Monsanto capabilities in microbial discovery, advanced biology, field-testing and commercialization. The stated goal of the alliance is to help farmers meet the challenge of producing more with less in a sustainable way.

Monsanto BioAg is the commercial division of the BioAg Alliance. This year, Novozymes BioAg gained 13 registrations for QuickRoots in either wettable powder or a dry formulation, for soybeans, small grains, corn, canola, alfalfa or pulse crops.

Meanwhile, Monsanto BioAg broadened its product portfolio by registering 11 of the 13 QuickRoots products with Monsanto labels.

“To fully understand what this means, they are primarily Monsanto asking for the registration based on existing Novozymes BioAg product registration,” says Jon Treloar, a technical agronomist with Monsanto BioAg.  

Treloar says the BioAg alliance is data-driven. Monsanto BioAg is responsible for field-testing in Canada. It proves the efficacy of each claim by doing costly, time-consuming testing.

“This year, we had 150 small plot trials at 150 locations across Canada, and we had close to 200 field scale trials through the BioAdvantage Trials program.”

However, he adds, supplying the data to prove a label claim is voluntary. The CFIA efficacy requirement has been removed for nearly three years.