Could countryside strolls result in economic and ecological damage?
Could countryside strolls result in economic and ecological damage?

Could countryside strolls result in economic and ecological damage?

Written by Chelsea Sutherland & Stuart Smyth

Biosecurity considerations for public nature and leisure activities

The contamination and spread of plant pests, including disease, weeds, and insects, is a major concern for farmers. Crop damage from infestations can have disastrous effects on crop yield, and once contamination occurs, the harmful effects can last for several years. Plant pests can be spread by humans, animals, or equipment carrying pathogens or seeds. To help curb the spread of these invasive species, biosecurity measures are commonly practiced. These measures minimize the risk of contamination through disinfection, the limit of soil transfer, or restricted access to agricultural areas.

Exploring leisure and hiking trails is a popular outdoor recreational activity. Trails often run alongside (or even through) farmers’ fields, depending on their location. This is especially common in European countries and in some regions of Canada including B.C. and Ontario. In addition to hikers, hunters across Canada commonly enter farmers’ fields, with permission, in pursuit of their game. Yet, considering the increasing concern of pest contamination in farmers’ fields, should access to agricultural land, or the biosecurity measures in place for the public, be re-examined? Presently, most livestock facilities, such as hog barns, are biosecurity protected, whereby no outside potential contaminant is allowed inside of the barn. Workers have to change into protective suits, wash their boots prior to entry, and many have shower-in, shower-out policies as well. But what about grain farms?

Plant pest contaminations & biosecurity

Invasive weed species, insects, and diseases can wreak havoc in farmers’ fields. Not only can crop contamination affect farmers’ yields, but it can also reduce crop productivity and quality, increase producer costs for controlling the contamination, and present export or trade issues. Plant pests can be spread through wind and water erosion or the movement of wildlife. However, the biggest contamination risk we can mitigate comes from human transfer through equipment, vehicles, or other activities.  

Biosecurity in crop production is a series of management practices designed to control the introduction and spread of plant pests. Though biosecurity has been an important part of livestock production for many years, it is a relatively new, but quickly growing concern in grain production. Due to emerging issues with soil-borne diseases, especially clubroot in Western Canada, biosecurity measures have become increasingly important for grain producers. Spores of clubroot are easily moved from between locations with soil transfer. A number of management practices can help to manage the spread of clubroot, including keeping a minimum of two years between planting canola, seeding clubroot resistant varieties, limiting access to the area, knocking soil off shoes, tools, and equipment, and sanitizing equipment and tools between fields.

Recreational activities in agricultural areas

Though members of the agricultural industry, such as professional agronomists, face strict biosecurity protocols when visiting farmers’ fields, they are often not the only ones entering these areas. Many leisure trails intersect crop production areas, leading the public right to the fields. Yet, from the discussion above, it is clear that the risk of spreading plant pests to and from farmers’ fields is high, with major consequences. Unlike professional agronomists, those enjoying outdoor leisure activities do not typically face strict biosecurity protocols. Canada has biosecurity measures in place at the border as part of our customs declaration process, such as requiring those entering Canada to declare whether or not they visited a farm abroad and if they are bringing items like meat, live animals, or plants across the border, but no measures are currently enforced domestically.

Hunters face a similar lack of biosecurity guidelines. Though in Saskatchewan hunters typically obtain permission to hunt on farmers’ land, there are currently no policies in place for hunters to practice agricultural biosecurity when hunting on or near fields. Berry-picking is another example of how farm biosecurity can be threatened. All it takes is a few grams of dirt or mud on a boot to be dislodged in a field from a previous field for plant diseases to be spread. While a bucket of fresh picked wild berries might be valued at $10-20, the cost to the farmer in terms of new disease control mechanisms could be $20,000-$40,000. 

Most individuals seeking leisure activities in close proximity to agricultural land would be devastated to learn their actions unintentionally spread a plant pest from one field to another, costing farmers money. The physical disconnect between rural farmers and urban consumers results in the lack of knowledge about the basic spread of diseases and pests. Based on previous research regarding consumer knowledge of common agricultural practices, consumers will have virtually no idea about the importance of high biosecurity standards in agriculture. Examples of this disconnect are the incidences of ‘canola theft’ observed this past summer in Alberta. Numerous reports came in of people visiting canola fields without permission and taking bags full of canola plants. These individuals could easily have spread clubroot spores from field to field, not to mention the theft of farmers’ valuable crops.

However, despite the biosecurity concerns with recreation and agriculture colliding, there are some potential benefits to the public enjoying leisure activities near agricultural land. Leisure trails in agricultural regions provide the opportunity for the public to reconnect with agriculture. The trails have the potential to spread awareness of agriculture’s important role in feeding the world through agri-tourism. There is also opportunity for direct marketing of farmers’ production to trail users. Hunters also provide some mutual benefits to farmers when hunting on their land. Sustainable hunting is important in controlling animal populations, such as deer and geese, which commonly feed on farmers’ crops.

What does this mean for those enjoying outdoor activities in rural areas?

The challenge facing agriculture regarding biosecurity concerns is that some of the ways pests and diseases are spread are beyond anyone’s control. Wildlife transfer soil, weeds, disease and other contaminants as part of their daily foraging activities. So, regardless of how careful humans are, the potential problem is going to be an ongoing one. However, human awareness of the problem will contribute to mitigating the spread of contaminants. If you’re going to be crossing a field, consider only being on one field a day and washing your footwear at home. Alternatively, you might take portable decontaminants with you to rinse your footwear if moving from field to field, such as with hunting. Berry-pickers may assist by taking more than one pair of footwear and ensuring they switch after being in one field. In addition, always make sure you have permission to be on the property. No one wants to end the public’s ability to enjoy nature as part of their leisure activities, but raising awareness about the potential for harm encourages individuals to take proper precautions as part of their enjoyment of nature.