What role should farmers play in developing new wheat and barley varieties?
It’s a question Western Canada’s cereal groups are tackling together, says Brent VanKoughnet, a consultant working with the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association (MWBGA), one of the groups involved in the project.
Directors and staff from eight organizations, with some funding and support from the Western Grains Research Foundation, have formed a working group to frame a study, which will then be handed off to a consulting firm to flesh out the reasonable options for producer involvement.
“That whole spectrum needs to be explored so we understand the risk and benefits of any of those choices,” Van Koughnet said in an interview.
“In some cases it might be a little more assistance to a public breeding program, to being much more aggressive and saying, ‘Would we actually take some ownership position in a breeding company?’”
The future of western Canadian wheat and barley variety development is uncertain, David Rourke, an MWBGA director and farmer from Minto, Man., told the Manitoba Seed Growers Association’s annual meeting in Brandon in December.
“(Agriculture) Minister (Gerry) Ritz has made many changes and we’re not entirely sure what the implications of all those changes are, but we’re trying to figure it out,” Rourke said. “I think eventually we’ll try to come up with a strategy where we are in a position to lead in that area, so we have to look at the evolution of public research — how it will be funded, is it sustainable?”
Federal role already reduced
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has already said it plans to hand off new varieties at an earlier stage rather than taking them to registration.
Meanwhile, federal legislation to adopt UPOV ’91, an international agreement giving plant breeders more protection over their varieties, is before the Senate and is expected to soon become law.
The move, applauded by private plant-breeding companies and many farm groups, has given rise to speculation the government will further reduce its wheat variety research anticipating the gap will be filled by private firms that currently dominate in corn, soybeans and canola.
“Wheat is quite different from corn or soybeans or canola in terms of genetic potential and some of the things that might be able to be done,” Rourke said.
“So I want to make sure we don’t just get out of the road of private industry and pay more for seed and not get that much more value. We need to be really careful there. We need to devise how producers can fill some of the gaps that may or may not exist.”
Developing improved varieties of wheat and barley is important to keep western Canadian farmers competitive, VanKoughnet said.
“You could starve the beast for a couple of years but you don’t see the negative impact for a decade and then all of sudden you’ve lost breeders and research capacity,” he said, adding that reinvesting then puts farmers almost a decade behind because that’s how long it takes to develop new varieties.
“You really have to have a much more forward-looking plan in breeding than in any other part of our industry. You really have to be dedicated to the long game, or you will pay.”
Larger provincial role
The new provincial wheat and barley associations have the potential to see farmers more engaged and have more influence than ever, VanKoughnet said.
The new associations were created in part to fill some of the gaps created when the Canadian Wheat Board’s sales monopoly ended and its mandate changed, Rourke said.
“It’s a little bit like Humpty Dumpty,” he said. “Somebody pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall and it’s up to us to try and find the pieces and put them all back together. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Western wheat and barley growers used to fund research through a voluntary checkoff on final wheat board payments. The money went to the farmer-run Western Grains Research Foundation, which then decided how it was spent. A temporary checkoff continues to fund the WGRF and the Canadian International Grains Institute but ends Aug. 1, 2017. The wheat and barley associations are working towards a seamless transition, Rourke said.
“Because we’re (MWBGA) kind of the small players on the Prairies, particularly compared to Saskatchewan, we need to collaborate as much as possible to leverage our dollars the best we can.”
Rourke said 70 to 80 per cent of the Manitoba research budget would be spent on joint projects with other provinces.
About 10 per cent of the total budget will be on market development, mostly through Cereals Canada.
Rourke, who took part in a trade mission to promote Canadian wheat in South America in November, said Canadian grain needs to be promoted.
“If we’re not in front of our customers somebody else will be,” he said. “The U.S. Wheat Associates, which is kind of the marketing arm (for American wheat) has a head office staff of 19 and… 17 permanent offices around the world. And we have a bunch of volunteers that go around once a year. I think we’re pretty effective but not to be there really is not a good option at all if we want to maintain relationships with those customers.”