Oats may not be on the list of minor, or at least specialty crops on the Canadian Prairies these days, but a recent decision from a major buyer of the commodity has certainly put the crop at the forefront of industry news.
On April 20, Grain Millers which owns several oat milling facilities including one at Yorkton sent out a memo stating it will no longer accept any oats and/or oat products which have been treated with glyphosate.
The move away from accepting oats where glyphosate if applied in the fall is a significant step for Grain Millers as many growers who straight combine oats use glyphosate to hasten and even up crop maturity.
The decision is certainly creating its level of controversy within the oat sector.
Many producers see the decision as a ‘green, public’ driven one. One where an increasingly vocal, of not necessarily growing, sector of consumers are against anything chemical.
For those with such concerns the idea of chemical application close to harvest has to be disquieting, and it is likely such people will applaud the Grain Millers decision.
Terry Tyson, Grain Millers procurement manager in Yorkton, Sask. told Yorkton This Week the change was driven by functional performance attributes of finished products manufactured from oats known to have been treated with glyphosate.
The problem in terms of milling is two-fold, said Tyson.
“We experience chalky, brittle groats and flakes,” he said, adding the effect is much like that if oats are frozen in the field when too green in the fall.
The issue is something they began to see three, or four years ago, and it has grown as a problem to the point the company went looking for answers, finally trailing it to glyphosate applied too early in the fall.
Broken flakes means added dust, and changes the way the oats may react in baking, as an example the way it absorbs moisture, said Tyson, adding that was an issue for the company’s customers.
A second issue has also been attributed to oats which had an improperly timed fall-application of glyphosate.
“It drops the beta glucan levels,” said Tyson, adding that is most worrisome as “that particular little compound is a dietary fibre which allows labelling as heart healthy.”
The second issue would indeed be worrisome as oats rely on the heart health aspect to spur sales.
If Grain Millers is correct in its ascertain the issues are both significant and can be traced to improper timing of fall glyphosate application, then one might expect other millers to face the same problems and follow suit on a ban.
For producers, potentially losing glyphosate as a harvest management tool in oats may well have at least some opt for other crops.
However, it would appear the problem may be one created by farmers. If the Grain Millers research into their problems is correct, the issue is not glyphosate application itself, but the timing of such pre-harvest applications. Carried out too early, when the oats are still too green, appears the problem. Without unload time testing, the problem can’t be identified though, so the company set up its ban.
But if you step back from the oat situation itself just a bit, a great concern lies under the surface of this debate.
While Grain Millers has said they found nothing to harm the consumer in its investigation, the impact on beta glucan levels does show farm chemicals and the timing of application can change the make-up of a grain.
The situation goes to show unexpected results can occur well after company testing of herbicides, and even years after introduction and widespread use.
That is something some consumer groups will pick up on and use as chip in their efforts to curb farm chemical use.
It is also something our federal government should reflect upon. The Conservatives seem content to lessen the safeguards regarding registration requirements for farm use products in this country, and indeed controls on grain quality as well, content to leave that to big grain company business and a buyer beware philosophy. This situation speaks about the continued need for government regulation and monitoring, certainly not less.