The chairman joked about hosting “Canadian Idol” as he called a meeting of the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (WRT) to order here last month.
It’s an apt comparison in some ways. “Canadian Idol” is a contest where judges pick the best singer from a large group of contestants; members of the WRT vote on whether new varieties of wheat should be recommended for registration, which is a prerequisite for commercialization.
But that’s where the similarities end. Choosing the best singer is a subjective process, while assessing the merit of a new wheat is anything but. WRT committee members have access to three years of independent, scientific data taken from plots across the West to measure a wheat’s performance relative to check varieties.
The data includes yield, maturity, straw strength, diseases resistance, dough strength and performance in bread and noodles.
“It’s not a superficial look,” said chairman Rob Graf, a plant breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge research station in an interview. “We’re looking at these lines at the agronomy, disease and quality evaluation levels for three years. Those lines that make it through really are elite lines and should be very good for the entire industry, not just for farmers, but for end-users and the whole value chain.”
The WRT recommending committee has three subcommittees. One evaluates a candidate variety’s agronomy, another considers its susceptibility to disease and the third assesses milling and baking quality.
Each committee meets separately to consider the data. Subcommittee members vote with a show of hands whether to recommend the candidate for registration. The results are recorded and reported when all three subcommittees hold a joint meeting – where each variety is again reviewed. That’s followed by a secret vote by WRT members (up to 25 per subcommittee).
“People don’t necessarily vote along the lines that their evaluation team would,” Graf said. “Each member is charged with looking at a holistic view considering agronomics, disease and quality.”
Once a variety is recommended for registration, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible for registering new crops, almost always follows the committee’s advice.
Although committee members consider reams of scientific data, the process is not devoid of politics or personalities. That’s not surprising given hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent developing a new variety. Moreover, seed companies have the potential to earn as much or more if a variety gets registered. The outcome will have an economic impact on farmers too.
Some call it bureaucratic. But Graf said in addition to being scientifically rigorous, there’s room for flexibility. Committee members weigh all the pros and cons, he said.
“Within those broad parameters there are going to be pluses and minuses and it’s up to us as experts to weigh them and in our own mind determine whether or not we feel that that particular candidate has a fit,” Graf said.
The Canadian Wheat Board and Canadian Grain Commission have maintained for years requiring new wheats to meet set standards is a vital part of maintaining Canada’s reputation for supplying the best milling and baking wheat in the world.
At the same time western farmers are reasonably assured any new registered wheat they grow won’t be a complete dud.
The process is not perfect though. Even after three years of testing some flaws sometimes show up in a new variety after it’s more widely grown. For example, last year CDC Go was rated “fair” for tolerance to fusarium head blight, but field experience found it was more susceptible and the rating has been reduced to “poor.” [email protected]