Snake Oils – Waste of Money or Cure-All?

Sean Westerveld, Ginseng & Medicinal Herb Specialist, OMAF and MRA

Growers are always looking for new products and practices to improve yield and quality and combat pests. Growers face numerous companies advertising a multitude of products ranging from fertilizers to pest control products to water treatment tools. There are also many blogs and websites promoting different practices and home-made products. How do you know what is safe to apply and will be effective on your crop? Do your research!

The term snake oil dates back to the 19th century when Chinese railroad workers brought snake oil, a traditional Chinese medicine, to North America. Eventually, shady salesmen sold imitation snake oils as a cure-all for human illnesses. The term “snake oil” is now used to refer to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable quality or benefit. Once a product is proven effective, it is no longer a snake oil.

Before purchasing a product or implementing a new practices make sure it is legal to do so and (if applicable) is permitted by your buyer, processor, or certifying body. Any product with pest control claims (including organic products) must be registered for use on each crop and pest by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, a division of Health Canada. Each product must be proven effective before it can be registered. It is illegal to apply an unregistered pest control product. Almost all other products would be classified as fertilizers. Many fertilizers must be registered under the Fertilizers Act to be sold in Canada. There are exemptions for many common fertilizers like potash or organic materials like compost and manure. If a product is not registered, have the company provide proof that it falls under one of these exemptions.

Home-made products can also pose a health and safety risk to the grower or to the consumer, or could damage the crop.  There are many natural chemicals that are highly toxic or allergenic. Furthermore, growers are responsible if any health or environmental issue occurred as a result of using a home-made product. Growers also need to confirm that it is legal to apply a home-made product by contacting the Pest Management Regulatory Agency at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pest/index-eng.php or at 1-800-267-6315.

For any commercial product, the best method for avoiding scams is to ask for research results proving that the product works. Research results should be from replicated, randomized and repeated experiments and should be statistically analysed. Without statistics you cannot have any confidence in the results. Experiments should also be done by a reputable research institution or government body. If the company stands by their product, they should be able to provide proof that it works. Do not trust a picture showing how well the product works unless it shows a side-by-side comparison of the product and a standard practice and is backed up by research results.

Make sure you know what is in a product before applying it. Some inert ingredients of products can be kept secret, but the active ingredients should be listed. Also, be wary of products that look too good to be true because they probably are.

If a product or practice looks promising but you are unsure about whether it is going to work, conduct a trial on your own farm. Make sure that it can be legally applied in the field before conducting any experiment. Trials do not have to be complicated. Always compare the new product to your existing practices by doing side-by-side comparisons on an area of your farm that has low natural variability. Trials can range from simple strip trials (Figure 1) which can provide a good indication if the product or practice works to more complex statistical designs that are required for statistical analysis such as the randomized complete block design (Figure 2). Keep in mind that it is not important to know whether the product works, but rather whether the product is more effective or cheaper than what you already do. Consequently, compare the product to your best management practices. Also be sure to test only one product or practice per treatment. If a treatment containing two products increases yield, you will not know which of the two products had the effect.

Snake oils can range from effective products that have not been properly tested to products that are completely ineffective or even harmful. By doing your research before applying any new product or practice you can take advantage of opportunities and avoid scams. As it turns out, scientific studies have now been done on snake oil proving some of its medicinal properties, so even snake oil is no longer a snake oil.

(Adapted, with permission. Originally published in OMAF’s ON Organic newsletter.)

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