To spray or not to spray? 2 farmers weigh in on the pesticide vs. organic debate

We asked two farmers on either side of the pesticide/herbicide debate — who happen to live in the same part of Saskatchewan — their thoughts on this issue. Here's what they had to say.

Canada contemplating changing regulations around certain pesticides

The Leguee farm in southeast Saskatchewan spans 13,000 acres. (Submitted)

The agriculture world has been abuzz with not one but three heated debates around pesticide and herbicide use in the past couple of months.

First, Health Canada opened a public consultation into the use of strychnine, a pesticide used in Alberta and Saskatchewan to control ground squirrels.

Then, a California jury found Monsanto liable in a lawsuit filed by a man who alleged the company's glyphosate-based weed-killers caused him cancer. The court ordered the company to pay $289 million US in damages.

A few days later, news leaked that the Canadian government will begin phasing out the outdoor use of nicotine-based pesticides, which scientists think might be affecting bee populations, beginning in 2021.

We asked two farmers on either side of the pesticide/herbicide debate — who happen to live in the same part of Saskatchewan — their thoughts on this issue. Here's what they had to say.

Jake Leguee farms 13,000 acres with his wife, two young children, parents and older sister near Fillmore, Sask., in southeast part of the province. He has a degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan, and worked as an agronomist before beginning to farm full-time. He also runs a seed business.

Jake Leguee worked as an agronomist for a couple of companies before beginning to farm full-time. (Submitted)

Nicole Davis took over ownership of Daybreak Mill in southeast Saskatchewan in 2012, after working there for a year. Founded in 1963, it was one of the first farms in the province to get an organic certification. It provides organic products to individual customers and retailers across Canada via an online store.

Nicole Davis took over ownership of Daybreak Mill in 2012, after working there only one year. (Submitted)

Why do you use pesticides and herbicides?

JL: I use pesticides because they help my farm be more sustainable, both economically and environmentally. Decades ago, before the release of most of the herbicides we have today, there was really only one option for weed control: tillage. Tillage is extremely destructive to the billions of living organisms in our soils. All of the pests we deal with year-to-year, from weeds to fungi to insects, consider our crops as competition or a food source. Pests continually adapt to the pressure we put on them; a number of weeds in this area evolved resistance to tillage, just as many now have resistance to some types of herbicides. That is why we use integrated pest management to stay ahead of them, which means we use every tool we have available to us to fight them — and pesticides are the foundation of that management system.

​Why do you avoid pesticides and herbicides?

ND: I believe that they are detrimental to our environment and to human health. We have never used pesticides or herbicides on our farm but do follow a strategic crop rotation plan. In the seven years I've been farming, we've never had pest or disease problems. I also believe that the best way to grow nutritious crops is by feeding the soil naturally with plant and animal manure, and allowing it time to rest and regenerate.

What do you consider the implications of your decision?

ND: I try to make my farming decisions thinking about seven generations in the future. What can I do now to ensure that future generations can also grow nutritious crops? By not using chemicals on my farm, I feel that I am allowing the soil to flourish in a natural way so that it does not need help from manmade materials in order to be healthy, and provide food for myself, my family and my customers. Perhaps I am not right, and chemically-enhanced soil does work better, but my personal opinion is that this is the best way to keep the soil healthy.

JL: One of the biggest challenges facing pesticides today is resistance. Picture a typical Saskatchewan field: about 320 acres. There can be millions of weed seeds out in that field. All it takes is one to survive the herbicide application, simply due to slightly different genetics than the other weeds. When it survives, it multiplies. If left unchecked, it will do it again next year. They can get out of hand very quickly, and have, in many areas of the world. What makes this problem more concerning is the fear a lot of us farmers have of losing certain herbicides to regulation. The reason we have very few cases of herbicide resistance on my farm is because we use a variety of tools to stay ahead of them. Limiting us by removing certain herbicides will only cause more problems.

How does sustainability fit into your approach?

JL: On my farm, we use the tagline "Growing a Sustainable Future." Our goal is create a business that lasts — to build a farm the next generation can be proud of. What does that mean as it relates to pesticides? It means we take care to ensure we are using the right product, at the right rate, at the right time. We don't overuse them, and we don't abuse them. Remember, pesticides are expensive, and are in fact one of the highest cost inputs on our farm. We want to use them responsibly.

In canola, one of the insects that has been a challenge for us lately is diamondback moth larvae. During an outbreak last year, I avoided spraying if at all possible. Finally, I had to. While canola is flowering, bees like to forage in it. Other beneficial insects will be in there as well. To avoid killing them as well as the diamondback, I used a product that controls only worms feeding on the crop. It was a more expensive product than the alternative, but I believe keeping the beneficial insects alive is more than worth it. These are the decisions farmers like me make every year.

ND: Sustainability is of utmost importance to me.  I want to leave the land that has been entrusted to me in the best condition possible so that whoever farms it after me can continue to grow nutritious crops. Sustainability, to me, is more than just farming without chemicals. It is about farming in a way that is as close to how nature works as possible. Sustainability means not just throwing away the knowledge that my conventional farming friends have, but hearing them out and seeing how some of their methods could be applied to organic agriculture.

Daybreak Mill, located in southeast Saskatchewan, is an organic farm founded in 1963. (Submitted)

What are the greatest misconceptions about pesticide/herbicide use?

JL: I hear often that we "douse" our crops with chemicals. That couldn't be further from the truth. We spray herbicides early in the season to control weeds. Once the crop is up and competitive, we leave it alone. It can out-compete any weed once it's big enough. In fact, we often only spray them once while they are growing, and when we do spray them, the rates are always low. Take glyphosate, for example. At the registered rate on canola in-crop, I am spraying only two pop cans-worth of glyphosate on an area almost the size of a football field.

What are the greatest misconceptions about organic farming?

ND: The biggest misconception I hear is that we don't actually grow food, we just grow weeds. I hear a lot that organic agriculture will never feed the world, but conventional agriculture isn't either. Some people also think that it is just a money grab, but for most organic farmers it is far more than that. It is a way of life; it's about working alongside nature rather than trying to outsmart it. 

What was your reaction to the recent Monsanto ruling, and discussions around possible pesticide and herbicide bans?

ND: I believe that this court decision was long overdue and am happy to see big corporations having to take responsibility for the repercussions of their actions. That being said, I also don't want to see conventional farmers struggling because their tools are being taken away. I would love to see manmade chemical inputs being banned and being replaced with natural inputs like rock phosphate and calcium, and planting things like peas to fix nitrogen rather than using salt-based sprays. I hope that along with these bans comes the revitalization of our bee colonies, our rivers, lakes, streams and oceans. I hope these decisions can lead to positive changes within the agricultural industry, both for conventional and organic farms.

JL: I am frustrated by the results of the Monsanto court case, and I firmly believe the appeal process will change the ruling. Glyphosate is the safest, cheapest chemical on the market. It is one of the lowest toxicity herbicides we use on our farm. Without it, we would be forced back into tillage for weed control. Even if the appeal process is successful, the damage has already been done. Thousands of headlines released since already have people in fear over the use of glyphosate. There are insecticides, seed treatments and fungicides all facing increasing pressure from environmental organizations. If we start to lose access to these products, despite their proven safety, it will take a toll on my farm. We will lose products that help keep us sustainable. We will be forced to use older, potentially less safe herbicides that are not as effective on weeds. In short, losing glyphosate would be devastating for my farm and my family

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

This article is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ

With files from Thomas Reuters, The Canadian Press


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