“One of the things farmers maybe should be interested in is having some control over their own germplasm.”
– David Rourke
Plant breeders need to make wheat more like canola, farmers said during CropLife Canada’s annual convention in Ottawa last month.
“You look at what canola (yield) has done and it has been phenomenal,” Jeff Nielsen, an Olds, Alta., farmer and newly elected Canadian Wheat Board director said. “We have not seen that… in our wheat or barley. It is really getting to the point on our farm (where we ask) can we really continue growing these crops?”
Red Deer, Alta. farmer Kevin Bender agreed.
“Our canola yields in the past 10 to 15 years I’d say have doubled,” the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) director said.
Vegreville farmer and Alberta Grain Commission member Greg Porozni said wheat yields lag because the crop hasn’t been genetically modified (GM).
Lack of consumer acceptance is the main roadblock. The WCWGA has met with American and Australian wheat farmers to push GM wheat. “We all seem to be on the same page that we need to move forward in the development of wheat biotechnology,” Bender said.
Wheat yields are not stagnant, says Ron DePauw, an Agr iculture and Agr i-Food Canada wheat breeder based at Swift Current, Sask. They’ve increased dramatically since farmer checkoff money funnelled through the Western Grain Research Foundation (WGRF) started supplementing AAFC wheat breeding in the mid-1990s.
“We have effectively doubled the size of our program (breeding material) as a result of the WGRF checkoff,” DePauw said. “It has had a huge impact.”
Between 1975 and 2005 new wheats outyielded the old ones by an average of 24 per cent, he said.
Western Canadian wheat yields the last 10 years compared to the 10 before are up eight per cent to 34.8 bushels an acre, according to Statistics Canada. Canola yields jumped 18 per cent to 27 bushels an acre during the same period.
In Manitoba, spring wheat leads, according to crop insurance figures, are up 28 per cent to 40 bushels an acre, versus a 25 per cent increase in canola to 30.2 bushels.
While Porozni, Bender and Nielsen credit biotechnology, researchers say canola yields have risen mainly due to hybridization. The only GM trait in canola, herbicide tolerance, has improved weed control, resulting in better yields, but the biggest boost is from heterosis.
Wheat can be hybridized but the resulting higher yield isn’t enough to offset the extra cost, DePauw said.
The biggest reason wheat isn’t more like canola is money – a lot more of it is invested in canola.
Lanette Kuchenski, executive director of the farmer-funded Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), estimates it and AAFC spend
$10 million to $12 million on wheat breeding annually. AAFC contributes $9.6 million of it.
The Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA) says in 2007 the private sector invested $41.9 million into canola – four times as much as AAFC spent on wheat. Ultimately farmers pay for private companies’ canola research, plus a profit to company shareholders, through seed purchases.
AAFC research funding, including wheat breeding, has been flat for 10 years, AAFC assistant Deputy Minister Marc Fortin said during an interview. But more funding is coming through the federal-provincial “Growing Forward” initiative. (See sidebar). Meantime, the $2 million a year in royalties AAFC earns from wheat seed sales, is reinvested in wheat breeding.
“But wheat breeding is more than just the breeder,” Fortin added. “There’s a whole team of between eight and 12 people.”
Private funding for wheat won’t occur until companies see a way to capture a return on their investment, said Jeff Reid, president of the CSTA and general manager of SeCan.
Ninety-two per cent of the canola seed farmers plant is certified because it’s either hybrid, which can only be used once, or farmers have agreed through contracts not to save seed for planting. Royalties to breeders are included in the certified seed price. Only 18 per cent of the wheat seed sown is certified.
“That’s probably the single largest difficulty in getting more private investment in wheat,” Reid said.
The CSTA wants Ottawa to give farmers a tax break on certified seed purchases. That, and increased intellectual property rights, will attract more private research to wheat. The removal of kernel visual distinguishability (KVD), which gives wheat breeders more flexibility, could trigger more private funding too, Reid said.
Investing more in wheat will boost yields, but some farmers don’t want to rely only on multinational companies.
“One of the things farmers maybe should be interested in is having some control over their own germplasm,” David Rourke, a Minto-area farmer and entrepreneur, told the Seed Expo in Brandon last month.
He’s also a founder of the Western Feed Grain Development Co-op, developing wheats members can grow for livestock feeders and ethanol makers.
“I was at a meeting the other night and it was suggested to me this multinational who has the seed would look after us,” Rourke said.
It appears to be working. During the last eight years, canola plantings in the West were up four per cent compared to the previous eight years. Wheat acres fell 13 per cent during the same period.
“What we’ve seen in Canada is crops (like canola) that offer more protection of intellectual property through the availability of patentable (GM) traits are doing quite well in terms of investment and in terms of moving ahead in both profitability to the farmer and also in terms of total acreage,” Reid said.
There’s no free lunch though. Top canola seed can cost as much as $49 an acre compared to $30 for a leading wheat. Sowing farm-saved wheat seed is much less – basically the farmer’s cost of production, plus cleaning and what’s forgone by not selling it.
Farmers can cut costs by buying cheaper varieties of canola and cutting seeding rates, but still most will pay for seed again the following year, whereas with wheat they can take it from their own bin. The wheat farmer saves money, but less goes back to the wheat breeder trying to develop an even better variety.
“I don’t think we can start challenging Monsanto, Pioneer or Bayer in terms of coming up with farmer-owned canola lines that will be competitive in the marketplace, but there still may be a place for things like feed wheats and maybe other crops as well,” Rourke said.
If private companies don’t invest in wheat breeding farmers will have to, if they want to get higher yields faster. Would they be better off to own varieties rather than selling them to seed distribution companies?
Reid says no. He said seed company competition improves farmer profits.
Rourke, a farmer who also wears a seed developer’s hat, said the solution lies in finding the delicate balance between rewarding innovative plant breeders while meeting farmers’ needs. [email protected]