by SUSAN MANN
Ontario horticultural farmers will have access to new disease-detection technology within three years that could save them money in fungicide spraying costs, predicts a spokesman for a Quebec research firm.
The southeastern Quebec-based company developing the technology, Phytodata Inc., was awarded up to $1.2 million from the federal government on Aug. 3 to develop ways to monitor and detect major diseases in potatoes (late blight), grapes (mildew and botrytis) and greenhouse tomatoes (botrytis). The funding announcement was made in Ste. Madeleine by Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of State (Agriculture).
Phytodata president Luc Brodeur says the project will cost $1.6 million with the company kicking in the remaining $400,000. The company was created in 1991 by three Quebec agronomists and 35 small fruit and vegetable growers located south of Montreal.
For the disease-detection project, the company has developed a way to use traps that capture air-borne, disease-causing spores. In the 1990s Phytodata began to look for technologies that could help them see disease-causing spores in the air before symptoms appear on plant leaves, Brodeur explains. “We developed the use of what we call the spore traps.”
Phytodata adapted traps that were initially created to evaluate air quality in ducts of big buildings to agricultural production. The adapted traps were initially used successfully with onions. After almost 10 years of honing expertise the company is now working to develop the spore traps for use in potatoes, grapes and greenhouse tomatoes.
“The cost of the technology can only be afforded by high value crops,” he says.
After collection, the spores are counted using a new technology – DNA detection, Brodeur says, noting this is widely used in human disease detection. Technicians operate a machine that can process 24 spore traps in less than two hours. Growers receive a report on the spore count in each field with traps in less than 24 hours after trap collection.
“When you have more symptoms of disease on the leaves you need to use more expensive pesticides,” he says. “But if you have better timing and better choice of pesticide before you see the appearance of the disease on the leaves you can usually use protective fungicides that are much less expensive than corrective fungicide.”
Onion growers using the spore trap technology have seen their fungicide costs drop 30 to 50 per cent “because we have better timing,” Brodeur says.
Current research involves identifying the proper lab procedure to detect the disease from the spore traps along with evaluating the best locations and heights for the traps in fields and greenhouses, he explains.
Officials from the grape, potato and greenhouse tomato industries here haven’t heard of the company’s work.
Ontario has the largest grape acreage (more than 15,000 acres) in Canada and “we’ve yet to be consulted,” says Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of Grape Growers of Ontario.
Don Brubacher, general manager of the Ontario Potato Board, was not familiar with the company and couldn’t comment.
Eugenia Banks, Ontario agriculture ministry potato specialist who is familiar with research work using spore traps for disease detection, says late blight is the most destructive disease in potatoes. The disease kills plants and infects tubers.
Spraying to control the fungus is expensive, she says, because growers have to spray every five days.
Spokespeople for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers also didn’t know about Phytodata’s research.
In response, Brodeur says they had only one month to develop their proposal to access funding under the federal government’s Developing Innovative Agri Products Initiative program, which supports industry-led science and technology projects. Brodeur says he doesn’t have contacts in the Ontario industries and there wasn’t time to develop them before applying for the program. They also need to set up a network of labs to work with them before launching research here.
In partnership with McCain Foods Canada, Phytodata is doing its potato research on experimental sites in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec. Brodeur says they prefer to use actual farmers’ fields rather than research station plots because growers adopt the technology faster that way.
Phytodata is doing the grape research in Quebec this year along with working in collaboration with researchers on sites in France and Italy but it hasn’t started yet as the funding only came through last month. Greenhouse tomato research is being done in Quebec in collaboration with Savoura, the main company in Quebec for greenhouse tomatoes.
Phytodata expects to set up research sites with spore traps in Ontario grape fields and in greenhouse tomatoes next year, Brodeur says.
Spore traps have been used on onions in Ontario for the past two years. BF