Analysis: Wheat registration — having your cake and eating it too

Manitoba Co-operator’s Allan Dawson attended 
the Prairie Grain Development Committee’s 
annual meeting recently. Here’s his analysis on 
calls to change the registration system for 
western Canadian wheats

Calls to reform Western Canada’s wheat variety registration system boil down to the classic Canadian schism — the public and collective-managed approach versus letting the market decide.

True to form, the majority of wheat industry officials see the solution somewhere in between, but there are powerful interests pushing for a market-driven approach.

Private seed company officials didn’t say much publicly when the Prairie Grain Development Committee, the umbrella organization for four of the committees that recommend new varieties, met in Saskatoon recently.

They let Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz do the talking.

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“I am… asking that each recommending committee support the government’s efforts to enhance innovation by undertaking a review of their respective committee structures and procedures with a view to removing barriers that unnecessarily encumber innovation in the crop sector,” Ritz wrote in a letter to the chairs of all 17 recommending committees.

The critics, who appear to have Ritz’s ear, say the current system is paternalistic, inefficient and a barrier to innovation. Growing more higher-yielding, lower-quality wheat could be more profitable for farmers, they say.

Registration system supporters believe it, along with wheat classification, are key to maintaining Western Canada’s high-quality wheat brand.

There’s a compromise — expand the quality parameters for the Canada Prairie Spring wheat class, while retaining the standards for the West’s premier classes, Canada Western Spring and Canada Western Amber durum.

As Brian Lemon of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency put it, the wheat registration process is “complex and simple.”

New wheats undergo up to three years of testing to provide the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT) with the scientific data needed to accurately assess their agronomic, disease tolerance and end-use strengths and weaknesses. It’s complex.

But the principle behind it — vetting potential new varieties to ensure they serve growers and users — is simple.

The PRCWRT — a cross-section of wheat industry experts, including breeders, agronomists, cereal chemists, farmers, millers and marketers — decide, which varieties to recommend for registration, not the government. It’s regulation, but self-regulation.

Wheat breeders in the United States test too. The difference is, it doesn’t come from a third party and it isn’t necessarily open to public scrutiny. Nevertheless, market discipline protects the American farmer from inferior varieties, according to Norm Dreger, Syngenta’s head of cereals for North America.

How much of the criticism is legitimate and how much is based on misperceptions, ideology and commercial self-interest?

Misconceptions abound, according to Leo Meyer, a farmer from Woking, Alta.

“Unfortunately he (Ritz) has heard from people who have no idea what this committee is doing,” he said.

Misconceptions include that the committee meets in secret and privately developed varieties are excluded.

The federal government opposes regulation on principle. That’s ideology.

As for commercial self-interest, seed developers can save money if there are fewer hoops.

“Certainly yield will increase with fewer registration impediments,” said Lethbridge-based, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada wheat breeder Rob Graf.

“Is (breeding for) stem rust (resistance) an impediment? Is leaf rust an impediment? What about early maturity or sprouting tolerance or milling yield? The point I’m making here is no matter what trait you add it is going to slow down your rate of progress.”

Arguably as long as Western Canada has eight classes of wheat it would be difficult to abandon a merit-based registration system. Each class is not rigidly defined, but constantly evolving based on the varieties the PRCWRT recommends for registration. There needs to be a scientific way to decide if a new wheat fits the class.

Grain companies support the class system because different wheats can be commingled, making grain handling more efficient.

Buyers like it because it provides more consistent quality.

The new open wheat market is providing some of the variety flexibility farmers seek. Under the class system an unregistered variety is to receive the lowest grade in the class. But now farmers can negotiate the price with the elevator no matter the grade or class.

We’re seeing the change already. Seed Depot is working with several grain companies on an identity-preserved contract for Faller, an unregistered American wheat. Farmers will be paid as if they were delivering a CWRS wheat.

Pasteur is in the Canada Western General Purpose class — a class normally for feed and ethanol wheats. But some of it has been sold for milling with prices equivalent to wheats in the Canada Western Red Winter wheat class.

If the wheat sector isn’t distracted by misconceptions, ideology, or self-interest, it might achieve the impossible: having its cake and eating it too.

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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