Crop protection is costly. Growers of edible horticulture crops often have much higher crop protection needs and costs compared to field crops. Preservation of quality is as important as yield. As growers know, access to safe and effective crop protection technology is a key part of growing the crop.
For field crops, much of the responsibility for developing and bringing new crop protection technology to market is borne by the manufacturers who will be selling the final products. Manufacturers can recover the development and regulatory costs by product sales. However, for many edible horticulture crops, manufacturers find the sales potential is not sufficient to justify costs required to develop and register uses on these crops in Canada due to low crop acreages. This is referred to as the “minor use problem.” It is the agricultural equivalent of an orphan drug in human medicine.
The need for public assistance to help support minor use crop protection was first recognized in the United States which developed the IR-4 project in 1963. The IR-4 project develops datasets on crop protection product efficacy, crop tolerance, and crop residues to support the registration packages for minor use crops. It has been hugely successful and has resulted in tens of thousands of new registrations for edible horticulture crops over the decades.
As Canada faced similar, if not worse, challenges with our minor use registrations due to our comparably smaller horticulture industry, we were falling behind our U.S. counterparts. Finally, in 2003, a group of growers succeeded in convincing the federal government to support a minor use program. Its goal has been to assist minor crop growers with access to crop protection technology and to reduce the technology gap with the U.S. to increase competitiveness of the Canadian minor crop sector. The responsibility of developing the science datasets went to a new organization within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) known as the Pest Management Centre (PMC) and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) was tasked with providing regulatory support and review. This joint initiative has been ongoing ever since.
The PMC has similarly been a great success in Canada and a huge boon to edible horticulture growers. Thousands of new registrations for minor use crops and pests have been supported through its work. Modern crop protection products registered through PMC have made crop protection less hazardous for human health and the environment. It has also come with substantial financial benefits. An economic analysis report from AAFC’s Strategic Policy Branch produced in 2016 estimated that $650 million to $1 billion in crop losses were prevented by the work of the PMC. Surely that number is well into the billions by now. The report also concluded that for every $1 in government spending on the minor use program, $42 of net benefits are accrued to society. A strong minor use program simply makes economic sense.
But our minor use program is in trouble. A decade of flat budgets has eroded PMC’s capacity through inflationary pressures and rising costs of scientific trials. The PMC has been forced to reduce the number of projects it can take on each year and cannot fill current staffing vacancies due to budgetary pressures. As recently as 2019, PMC was able to take on 41 new projects, all determined by growers. By 2021, this had fallen to 29 new projects. In 2022, PMC will allow just 22 new priorities to be selected. We’re falling behind.
But the needs of edible horticulture aren’t dropping. From a surge of PMRA re-evaluation decisions in the past few years, to new resistance development, emergence of new pests, and changing customer requirements, the demand for this program is only increasing. While PMC has focused on developing greater efficiencies through sharing workloads and datasets with international partners such as IR-4, it only goes so far. And with the IR-4 program experiencing similar budgetary challenges, we simply can’t rely on the U.S. to solve our problems. Not to mention many of their crops and pest priorities are different. The PMC needs more budget.
The ask isn’t big…in fact it is miniscule. The PMC operates on a budget of approximately $9 million annually. Even if the program budget was doubled, it would still represent less than 0.01 per cent of the $3 billion that AAFC spent across the department in 2020-2021.
Minor use and edible horticulture crops may be brushed aside as “small potatoes” in the overall scheme of Canadian agriculture. But the impact of this sector is very significant when considered collectively. Edible horticulture crops produced $6.5 billion in farm cash receipts in 2020, representing more than 15 per cent of Canada’s total crop receipts. Collectively, edible horticulture is the third most valuable crop in Canada, after canola in first, and only slightly behind wheat in second place – it is more valuable than both corn and soybeans combined.
Compared to field crops, horticulture doesn’t get much attention, but it deserves recognition for the impact it has. The PMC and the minor use program have a proven high return on investment. Funding here should be a no brainer for government.