New operating procedures have streamlined the process of reviewing new varieties of wheat for registration, but the system continues to come under pressure for even more changes.
The Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT), which recommends whether new wheats for Western Canada should be registered implemented the results of a review ordered last year by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz at its annual meeting in February.
“I think this first test run demonstrated that we’ve achieved a lot towards streamlining and a lot to transparency and on the voting side, a lot to predictability,” outgoing PRCWRT chair Brian Beres said in a recent interview.
The PRCWRT’s agronomy team used a new spreadsheet-based tool to more objectively assess new wheats. Similar tools are being developed for the committee’s disease and end-use quality teams. The tool, which rates crop characteristics and determines whether they fall within the range of the checks or above or below them, will make it easier for wheat breeders to know if their variety is on the right track, Beres said.
“They could plug it in earlier and just see where they’re sitting and then decide whether or not they want to go forward with it since they have a pretty good idea what the merit assessment decision would be at a team level,” he said.
The variety registration process went under the microscope in February 2013, when Ritz wrote all the recommending committees asking them to re-examine their operating procedures “with a view to removing barriers that unnecessarily encumber innovation in the crop sector.”
Ritz suggested the committees require less data, if possible and cut the number of years of pre-registration field trials. Ritz also said foreign data should be allowed, if applicable. Merit assessment, where appropriate, should be streamlined and committee membership balanced, he said.
Supporters of the current registration system say the process, which assesses new wheats based on science-based merit, gives farmers and end-users some assurance of performance. But critics claim the system is slow and political. They argue market forces will more efficiently determine which new varieties get grown.
Beres said a PRCWRT task force including voices from both camps worked out a consensus on new operating procedures.
“The feedback is… we didn’t go far enough or we went way too far,” said Beres, a biologist with AAFC in Lethbridge. “Right now I think we’re sitting somewhere in the middle. “
One of the biggest changes was to the voting procedure used to decide if candidate wheats should be recommended to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for registration — a prerequisite to commercialization.
The PRCWRT’s agronomy, disease and end-use quality teams used to meet separately to review two or three years of trial data to see if new wheats met the requirements. Then they voted by a show of hands.
The three teams then met jointly, reviewed each variety again and voted in a secret ballot whether to recommend for registration.
This year, the teams met separately, reviewed the data and voted. If all three teams voted to recommend a variety, it didn’t come forward for another vote before the whole committee.
“We had a historic day here today,” Henry Vos, Alberta farmer and director of the Alberta Wheat Commission told the PRCWRT meeting Feb. 27. “We approved 17 varieties without a vote here.”
Twenty-four candidate varieties of wheat, rye and triticale were presented to the committee. Two were withdrawn and only five were voted on by the whole committee.
Michael Scheffel, CFIA’s national seed section manager, praised the committee for its progress, but added there is pressure to do more.
“There is a lot of demand out there for choice,” he said. “It started with the marketing freedom and… we continue to deal with all the ripple effects of that. I think it’s important that we don’t do wholesale change. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
System critics are ill informed, said PRCWRT member and Woking, Alta., farmer Leo Meyer.
“I would venture to say if you did a survey today… there would be much stronger support for the system,” he said during the Prairie Grain Development Committee’s (PGDC) annual meeting in Winnipeg Feb. 26.
“So I urge this government, and I urge this minister, not to tinker around with the system to the point where we’re losing one of our key selling points.”
It’s unclear whether the committee’s changes go far enough to satisfy Ritz. A summary of reaction to the federal government’s discussion paper on proposed changes was close to being completed, Andrea Johnston, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s director of innovation, sector specialist for bioproducts, told the PGDC meeting. The summary is supposed to be made public after Ritz reviews it.