Be careful changing wheat registration

Western farm leaders say they oppose a push to allow new wheat varieties to be registered without meeting disease resistance, agronomy and end-use standards.

The presidents of Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), Agricultural Producers of Saskatchewan (APAS), and Wild Rose Agricultural Producers (WRAP), say the proposal put forward by rival group Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association goes too far, too fast.

“I think it’s OK to look at changing the existing system to be more responsive but I don’t think we want to completely disregard the system we have in place,” KAP president Doug Chorney said in an interview March 28.

APAS’s Norm Hall and Lynn Jacobson of WRAP made similar comments in separate interviews.

The current registration system, in tandem with wheat classification, is credited with cementing Canada’s international reputation for selling consistent-quality wheat, which millers and bakers value.

Last month the wheat growers wrote Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz asking him to adopt a model patterned after Australia’s wheat classification and registration system.

New varieties would no longer require up to three years of merit testing established by an industry panel of experts called the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT).

After the PRCWRT reviews all data at a public meeting, it votes on whether to recommend varieties for registration. The federal government almost always registers varieties the committee approves.

The WCWGA wants new wheats to be registered without merit assessment. However, a new wheat would undergo three years of end-use quality testing to see where it belongs in the Canadian Western wheat classes. During that time, it could be grown commercially if it’s sold as “feed wheat” or purchased by a grain company based on specifications.

“The decision on whether to introduce a new variety to the marketplace would rest solely with the seed developer,” the WCWGA said in a news release.

Merit testing for agronomy and disease resistance would be voluntary and not a prerequisite to registration.

“This new model will attract much-needed investment in wheat-breeding research in Western Canada,” WCWGA president Levi Wood said. “It will give farmers immediate access to new, more profitable wheat varieties, and allow us to make the decision on which varieties are right for our farms.”

At a meeting in Ottawa last November Todd Hyra, SeCan’s business manager for Western Canada, said the biggest barrier to increased private-sector wheat breeding is a lack of return on investment.

Farmers pay a royalty when they buy new wheat seed, which isn’t often, because they routinely sow saved seed. However, most farmers buy new canola, corn and soybean seed annually because the varieties are hybrids or patent protected or both. Many believe that is why companies invest in those crops and not wheat.

Australia is attracting private wheat-breeding investment because companies can earn a return, Paul Brennan, an Australian consultant on plant breeding, biotechnology and plant variety IP and former wheat breeder, said in an interview from Rock Valley, New South Wales.

“Private companies won’t invest in a big way in wheat breeding in North America until they can see a mechanism whereby they’ll get a good return on investment in plant breeding,” he said.

All wheat varieties should have sufficient rust resistance to minimize the chance of infection, Brennan emphasized. The Australian system doesn’t have a formal way to remove rust-susceptible wheats from the market. Fungicides can control rust, but those that fail to do so can contribute to resistance breaking down.

“What happens on your farm is not just restricted to your farm,” Brennan noted.

Before adopting the WCWGA’s plan APAS president Norm Hall said he wants evidence that it will “put more money in farmers’ pockets as opposed to the private breeding companies.”

He’s also skeptical that market forces will prevent seed companies from releasing poorer varieties. “I’d argue the almighty dollar doesn’t stop snake oil salesmen,” he said.

There needs to be more discussion, WRAP president Lynn Jacobson said.

“We’re in no big hurry to change this and I don’t think that we have to be in a big hurry to change it,” he said. “Let’s get it right when we do change.”

The current system focuses on serving farmers and end-users, Erin Amstrong, chair of the Prairie Grain Development committee, an umbrella body overseeing several variety recommending committees, said in an interview.

“If there’s no quality, there won’t be any demand and if there’s no field performance, there won’t be any supply,” she said. “We have to get it all right.”

PRCWRT chair Brian Beres says he’s close to selecting a 10- to 12-person subcommittee to review the PRCWRT’s wheat variety protocol in light of the pressure to change.

“My first obligation as chair is to make sure everyone has a voice,” Beres, an AAFC biologist at Lethbridge, said in an interview.

“We want it to be cross-sectorial. We want it to involve industry, non-profits, NGOs, academics, public institutions. I think we need each of the evaluation teams represented.”

The PRCWRT was to review its protocol this year anyway, but it took on new meaning after Ritz wrote all the recommending committees asking them to streamline their processes.

Beres said he welcomed input from the WCWGA and will seek comments from other farm groups.

The goal is to have a proposal for the PRCWRT to vote on when it meets next February, he said.

Some of the changes the WCWGA wants are beyond the PRCWRT’s mandate because they require regulatory changes under the seeds act.

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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