The ghost of agriculture minister past haunted the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT) during its annual meeting Feb. 25 in Saskatoon.
Gerry Ritz isn’t agriculture minister and there’s a new Liberal government in Ottawa, yet some of his policies on Canada’s variety registration system are still being implemented by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), while others are not.
For example, CFIA wants the 75-member PRCWRT to significantly cut its membership, while ensuring industry stakeholders from seed developers and farmers to exporters and end-users are represented.
Two other proposed changes have been shelved because neither are high on the new government’s priority list, Mark Forhan, a senior specialist with CFIA, told the PRCWRT.
Forhan didn’t say if the concept of smaller committees was vetted by the new government. The question was put to CFIA but it hadn’t responded by press time.
Presumably, CFIA believes its model operating procedures (MOPs) will improve variety registration. Or is it a response to an ideologically driven process that gained momentum under the old regime?
The PRCWRT is important to western Canadian wheat farmers. It assesses agronomic, disease and end-use quality data on new wheats and recommends if they should be registered by CFIA — a prerequisite to commercialization.
The PRCWRT’s role as gatekeeper is supposed to ensure farmers and end-users get new varieties that are as good or better than existing ones. While variety registration, along with the wheat class system and Canadian Grain Commission oversight, are credited with creating and protecting Canada’s high-quality wheat brand, there are critics, including the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) and some private seed companies.
Several years ago the WCWGA accused the registration system of being subjective, unpredictable, political and dominated by experts from publicly funded institutions biased against private sector varieties.
In early 2013 Ritz wrote all the recommending committees, including the PRCWRT, asking them “… to enhance innovation by… removing barriers that unnecessarily encumber innovation in the crop sector.”
The PRCWRT went to work immediately and by December 2013 had revised its operating procedures, believing it had achieved what Ritz wanted — a process that’s more inclusive, transparent, flexible and predictable. However, CFIA has just now put the finishing touches on its MOPs and will be “going back and forth with proposals and changes (with recommending committees)… looking for compliance with both the spirit and letter of the MOPs… ” to take effect in 2017, Forhan told the PRCWRT last month.
That took the PRCWRT by surprise.
“I know for a fact that we’re further ahead and more in sync with what you guys have there than a lot of other committees,” said Brian Beres, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) biologist at the Lethbridge Research Centre.
“I’m not going to compare you to other committees, but this is the one that needs a lot of work, honestly,” Forhan said in reply.
The biggest bone of contention is governance, he said.
“Seventy-five (members) is a bit on the extreme side,” Forhan said.
Although the PRCWRT has 75 full members who can vote on committee matters, voting on whether to support new varieties for registration is left to the 23-member cultivar voting panel made up of seven voting members from each of the three evaluation (agronomy, disease and quality) teams, plus one representative each from the Canadian Seed Growers Association and Canadian Seed Trade Association.
This year the panel only voted on four of the 26 candidate wheats before the PRCWRT. That’s because in 2013 the voting process was streamlined. Varieties approved by a majority in each of the three teams are automatically recommended for registration.
Before the vote the variety’s representative makes the case why it should be supported. Anyone, including guests, can ask questions and engage in the discussion. This year the process took just over an hour.
Forhan said the PRCWRT should be closer in size to its voting panel. The scientific experts that voluntarily serve on the evaluation teams would still assess the data, but voting would be left to industry stakeholders with “skin in the game.”
“The message that came back loud and clear (from industry consultations) was these are large, onerous groups and very complicated, difficult for a new member to decipher and figure out how to navigate their way through, (and there were) suspicions of bias,” Forhan said.
The critics are misinformed Woking, Alta. farmer and PRCWRT member Leo Meyer told Forhan.
“I’ve been in some of those organizations,” Meyer said. “I’ve talked to some of those people and heard the comments and they didn’t even know what the process was.
“I stand here to defend this process because it increasingly becomes an issue of who controls seed in the world. You just need to look at the latest deal with Syngenta and ChemChina.
“Maybe the new minister needs to be briefed.”
Wheat is not potash or crude or oil or canola, former AAFC wheat breeder Ron DePauw said. There are many different types of wheat with different uses and different stakeholders.
“When you start adding it up it gets to be more than a couple of people,” he said. “And I think as long as the group is open and transparent then there is an opportunity for all the people to express their point of view. That’s what’s really important here.”
DePauw added the fact a process is a bit difficult to understand the first time someone encounters it isn’t sufficient reason to simplify something that’s serving a purpose.
Who sits on the PRCWRT’s cultivar voting panel?
The Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale says its 23-member cultivar voting panel is made up of a cross-section of wheat industry stakeholders.
The panel is made up of seven members each from the three evaluation teams — agronomy, disease and quality — plus one each from the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA) and Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA).
Each team elects appropriate individuals for the value chain roles.
The CSGA and CSTA members will be elected by the PRCWRT.
Here’s a breakdown:
Agronomy Evaluation Team
1. Producer representative – Alberta
2. Producer representative – Saskatchewan
3. Producer representative – Manitoba
4. Agronomist, public sector
5. Private breeder
6. University breeder
Disease Evaluation Team
7. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) breeder
8. Stem rust expert, public or private
9. Leaf rust expert, public or private
10. Stripe rust expert, public or private
11. Fusarium head blight expert, public or private
12. Other diseases (bunt, smut, leaf diseases, etc.), public or private
13. Chemical control (fungicide) representative, private
14. Producer organization representative, producer
Quality Evaluation Team
15. Hexaploid wheat quality specialist, public
16. Durum wheat quality specialist, public
17. Milling industry representative, private
18. Baking industry representative, private
19. Western Grain Elevator Association representative, private
20. Canadian Grain Commission representative, public
21. Canada branding / technical and market support (Canadian International Grains Institute, independent)
Seed Trade Representatives
22. Canadian Seed Growers Association representative, producer
23. Canadian Seed Trade Association representative, private