AAFC official says private companies needed to fill wheat research gap

There’s a multimillion-dollar wheat research funding gap in Canada that the private sector needs to fill, says Stephen Morgan Jones, director general of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Prairie/Boreal Ecozone.

It will require stronger plant breeders’ rights rules and partnerships with publicly funded researchers, he told the Grain Industry Symposium Nov. 20 organized by the Canada Grains Council and Grain Growers of Canada.

An annual western Canadian wheat yield increase averaging 0.67 per cent since 1990, “doesn’t cut it in terms of the type of improvement that we actually need,” Morgan Jones said.

“It’s really not enough to lead global competitiveness.

“Clearly we need to see that innovation gap filled. And in today’s environment, this innovation gap, I would say, is one where the private sector needs to come and play.”

Adopting UPOV ’91, an international treaty giving breeders more power to extract a return from their varieties, including “end-point royalties” collected when farmers sell their grain, would help, Morgan Jones said.

“In that case I think I can confidently predict that there would be significantly increased private-sector investment,” he said. “We would see a situation like with canola — a blend of public and private investment. We’d likely see a proliferation of innovation. And we’d likely see increased use of new varieties.”

Earlier this month Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said he wants to introduce UPOV ’91 legislation in Parliament earlier in the new year with hopes it could be implemented by Aug. 1, 2014.

Private companies won’t invest so long as they have to compete with publicly funded research, Morgan Jones added. AAFC is the leading developer of new wheats now in Canada, he said.

About $5 million a year is spent on wheat research in Canada compared to $80 million on canola, Morgan Jones said.

Currently, for every dollar AAFC invests in wheat research it gets about 35 cents back through royalties collected on sales of certified seed, he said. A portion is shared with the Western Grains Research Foundation, a farmer-funded entity that invests in AAFC wheat research.

The returns are even poorer from small-acreage crops. That’s why publicly funded research needs to continue, Morgan Jones said.

Morgan Jones told reporters he doesn’t think farmers want to invest more into research, so that leaves the private sector to bridge the shortfall.

However, some farmers believe since they will ultimately pay for private research when they purchase varieties farmers should consider owning all, or part, of the research they fund.

The National Farmers Union says the federal government should increase wheat research funding because it is good for farmers and the Canadian economy.

According to NFU president Terry Boehm UPOV ’91will enrich foreign seed companies at farmers’ expense.

Although Morgan Jones is calling for more private investment, he stressed publicly funded research “has been important” in increasing yields, increasing end-use quality and developing insect and disease resistance.

“Stem rust in 1954 cost the Canadian industry about 50 per cent of the (wheat) crop and it’s a tribute, I think, to the researchers that over this period of time we’ve never had a major outbreak such as that since 1954,” he said.

Most recently AAFC researchers have made progress in efforts to develop wheats resistant to a new stem rust called Ug99.

Public-private partnerships are useful, but there’s still a necessary role for publicly funded “discovery research,” said Wilf Keller, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio, which helps promote and commercialize biotechnology in Saskatchewan.

“In my view — it’s just my opinion — the federal government’s science policy is a bit short term and very applied…” he said.

“I would worry that this will have a negative impact down the road. I know P3s (private, public, producer partnerships) and P4s are highly recommended but they aren’t the solution to everything. Sometimes I think they’re overemphasized.”

The most important science discoveries come from curiosity-driven research rather than applied, Morgan Jones told reporters. And there’s room for both in the public sector.

“With our own (AAFC) investment we’d prefer to move some investment towards the longer term… that takes maybe 10 or 15 years to result in something of value because the private sector won’t do that.”

Twenty to 30 per cent of AAFC’s research budget should be spent on curiosity-driven research “bearing in mind we are an applied science organization,” he said. It is about 20 per cent now.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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