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Canola’s biological future still bright

The crop has been a major beneficiary of good science, something researchers hope 
will continue as they warn of sustainability challenges

Wilf Keller knows exactly what’s on the top of his canola wish list.

Keller heads up Saskatoon’s Ag-West Bio and is well known for his contributions to early plant biotechnology work. At the recent Canola Council of Canada convention he participated in a panel discussion on past and future canola innovation.

“We need to look at better use of the crop itself,” Keller told the crowd. “We need to start looking at it not just as an oilseed, but as an oilseed and protein crop.”

Keller noted that the original development of canola was a model for public-private collaboration, something that can still be seen today in the unified front the industry enjoys. He said there’s still an important role for public research to play in paving the way for the commercial entities.

“I think there’s a lot to do on the public side that will strengthen private breeding efforts, such as some of the genetic discovery work,” he said.

Advances await

Many might look at the dizzying advances canola has made since the 1970s and assume there’s not a lot of room left for improvement. They’d be wrong, according to Keller.

“There’s been tremendous opportunity for us to continue to build in this crop,” Keller said during the discussion. “We’re only scratching the surface.”

Panellist Tom Greene, senior research director for DuPont-Pioneer, added the falling costs of using things like genetic marker technology is opening the door to tantalizing future prospects.

“New high-throughput technology to screen for markers is one example,” Greene said. “There’s a question of scale. Pennies really matter, when you’re doing tens of thousands of them.”

Greene added that there are “innovations sitting on the shelf” with their introduction hampered by market and regulatory uncertainty. He also said he’s expecting the impending “big data” revolution to give researchers far better insight into how to develop better genetic materials for farmers, and better management strategies for growers.

Garth Hodges, who leads Bayer CropScience’s North American canola and cereals efforts, said he’s hopeful the industry will thrive in the future, but is concerned the innovation environment of today may not be as fertile as in the past.

“If you were there 20 or 30 years ago, you got to meet the scientists who developed this crop, and experience the excitement and environment of it all,” he said. “It was not dampened or diffused by external factors. The world was available in those days, and we built business plans that included North America, South America, China and Europe.”

Today hesitation over biotechnology could stifle the creativity of researchers.

“With this new technology, not let’s not put it in a different environment,” Hodges said. “Put it in that very exciting and positive environment.”

Challenges

Those very real regulatory risks combine with another hard reality — canola’s relatively small acreage — to make it a hard fight to find research dollars, Hodges said. Amortizing the cost of developing a new hybrid in corn or soybeans, for example, pencils out a lot better because of the massive number of acres it can be spread over.

“It’s not spending $100 million to $150 million, but how it amortizes,” Hodges said. “Let’s be real, it is a very small crop.”

Lack of regulatory predictability makes that even more risky he said, noting that long recovery timelines aren’t a deal breaker if they’re predictable.

“If you knew it would be 12 years still do it, if it was 15 you might still,” he said. “But it’s unpredictable. We’re an export country and we export to other countries that are less predictable for their regulatory environment.”

Keller said the situation is made all the less palatable because Canada does grow so much of a crop that is, in the global context, small.

“In Canada canola is a big crop — it’s the big crop,” he said. “We need to access these tools. We need to be able to create new hybrids, to improve photosynthesis efficiency, to make improvements in the soil root zone and rhizosphere.”

Sustainable?

One thing that needs to be addressed when talking about the biological future of canola is the elephant in the room — sustainability, according to Hodges. He says the current production model is showing signs of fragility, in no small part because of the current production system.

“We’re facing major challenges to physically growing canola,” Hodges said. “Weeds, insects, diseases, they’re all getting smarter by the minute. And we’re making them smarter, by doing the same thing to them over and over again.”

He pointed out that clubroot, for example, has proven to be an ongoing challenge despite finding solutions like genetic resistance.

“Sometimes I’m disappointed we keep coming up with solutions,” Hodges said. “It’s led to this idea that the next innovation is always just a couple of years out.”

Hodges said the real solution to canola’s sustainability challenges will be better rotations, proper volunteer management and other unglamorous but important management strategies.

“These are simple things,” he said. “How do we get the industry to self-regulate? If we don’t get together and focus on basics of agronomy, I’m not sure canola will be there to enjoy all this new technology.”

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Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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