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Preserving midge-tolerant wheat

“It’s really, really important that we maintain this refuge system.”

– ROB HANNAM

BRANDON

Farmers who don’t follow the rules necessary to preserve the newly developed midge-tolerant wheat could be fined to the tune of $100 an acre.

“It’s a way of getting the message out there and making everybody stop and think about this and pay attention to it because it’s really important,” said Rob Hannam of Issues & Insights, the company co-ordinating efforts to inform farmers about ways to prevent the orange blossom wheat midge from developing resistance to the new wheat.

SeCan and FP Genetics will both start selling midge-tolerant Canada Western Red Spring wheat to farmers for commercial production in 2010. Ninety per cent of the wheat in the “varietal blend” will ward off wheat midge damage thanks to the Sm1 gene, while 10 per cent will still be susceptible.

That 90-10 blend is key to preserving the midge tolerance. If 100 per cent of the wheat sown were midge tolerant, only the naturally tolerant midge would survive and reproduce. The offspring would render the wheat that is now resistant to wheat midge, susceptible.

“If we do this properly and maintain this (10 per cent) refuge system it could be as long as 90 years this (tolerance) stays in place and this trait will continue to work,” Hannam said. “But it’s really, really important that we maintain this refuge system.”

“This has taken eight to 10 years to develop and millions in research dollars. We need to protect this and delay any resistance that the insect would build up to the trait so we can use it for generations.”

It’s especially important given only one gene has been identified in conferring tolerance.

All wheat naturally contains a compound that wheat midge dislike.

Midge-tolerant wheat produces that compound sooner. Researchers aren’t sure if the midge dies because the compound is toxic to them or whether they just starve to death. Either way the result is little or no midge-damaged wheat. Farmers make more money because they spend less on insecticides, plus they harvest more better-quality wheat.

Before farmers can purchase midge-tolerant wheat they must sign a contract agreeing to either buy new certified midge-tolerant seed every two years, or before growing farm-saved seed, have it tested by an accredited laboratory to ensure a minimum of 10 per cent of the seed is midge susceptible, Hannam said.

By signing the legally binding contract farmers also agree not to sell any farm-saved seed, which is illegal anyway under Plant Breeders’ Rights legislation.

Farmers also agree to be audited to ensure they are abiding by the contract.

It’s up to seed sellers to conduct random audits, Hannam said. That’s something some seed sellers won’t be anxious to do, one seed grower said privately. It puts sellers in an awkward position with a customer they don’t want to alienate.

“My experience has been once people know about it and there’s science behind it and it’s not just a marketing scheme, then they want to comply,” Hannam said. “We might never collect a dollar (in penalties) and that would be successful.”

Penalties will be used to promote the 10 per cent refuge to preserve the effectiveness of the Sm1 gene, Hannam said.

Midge-tolerant wheat was developed with farmer funding through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Given that and the benefits, Hannam said he’s optimistic farmers will follow the rules. The protocol isn’t there to sell more certified seed or to enrich seed companies; it’s there to protect the technology so farmers can benefit from it for years to come. [email protected]

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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