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Privatized seed inspection sore point for growers

Critics say the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is treating Manitoba differently than other provinces, but add it can fix the problem by working more closely with private inspectors

Manitoba pedigreed seed growers say they’re being held to a more rigid standard than farmers in other provinces.

The complaints, levelled at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) were raised at a Manitoba Seed Growers’ Association (MSGA) meeting here Nov. 30.

The allegations, which CFIA officials denied, come from some seed growers and companies providing pedigreed seed crop inspection services in Manitoba and other provinces.

“There are inconsistencies (with CFIA check inspections) across the country and Manitoba is certainly where a big chunk of the problem lies,” Gordon Butcher, the head of AgCall and chair of the Authorized Seed Crop Inspection Services (ASCIS), the association which represents the 20 or so inspection companies, said in an interview Dec. 5.

“Our (Manitoba) inspectors are fearful (of CFIA checks), whereas in other areas it is more collaborative.”

CFIA staff in Manitoba are just doing their jobs, Craig Koenig, CFIA’s regional chief inspector for Manitoba told the meeting.

“At the end of the day… our role is a regulator — it’s to identify non-conformities (in crops intended for pedigreed seed),” Koenig said. “It’s not to find mistakes, it’s not to blame, it’s not to issue CARs (Corrective Action Requests), it’s to identify non-conformities.

“My main message is that we really want to work with you.”

CFIA inspectors used to inspect seed crops to ensure they met the high purity required to meet pedigree standards. But in 2014 the Conservative government privatized inspections to cut government costs.

Seed growers, private inspectors and CFIA agree many of the problems encountered with producing pedigreed soybean seed is that the breeder seed has too many off-types to start with. CFIA’s Craig Koenig illustrated the point by showing this slide.
photo: Allan Dawson

CFIA trains private inspectors and audits their work. If CFIA finds an inspector is substandard, it will issue a critical Corrective Action Request (CAR). After getting three critical CARs in one season an inspector loses their licence.

CFIA issued 13 CARs in Manitoba this year, which Koenig said is not many considering the large number of fields inspected.

Inspectors who receive CARs are also subject to more check inspections.

Statistics show the number of “off-type demotions” of pedigreed crops has been climbing since privatization in 2014.

Some seed growers say CFIA is finding more problems with Manitoba seed crops, especially soybeans and Brandon wheat, than used to be the case. As a result private inspectors, many of whom formerly worked for CFIA, are second-guessing themselves and spending more time inspecting.

Manitoba only

There are fewer problems with check inspections in other provinces, Butcher said.

“In Manitoba they (CFIA) are very defensive,” he said. “For seed growers in Manitoba it puts them in a bad situation because in other regions… there’s not the same oversight on soybeans and with Brandon wheat.”

If a seed grower’s field doesn’t receive the pedigree expected, the seed is worth less, costing the grower money. If it happens too often, or growers stop producing pedigreed seed because it’s too hard or it’s unprofitable, it could result in higher seed prices for farmers.

Butcher said CFIA can address the complaints by working more closely with private inspectors.

“If we knew we were doing something wrong in season that would be fine because then we could take corrective action,” Butcher said.

“In the other regions if they (CFIA) see something out of place they give us a phone call… and sometimes they resolve it right on the phone. If it’s more serious we try to meet (with CFIA inspectors) right in the field.”

Some seed growers have complained CFIA focused too much on Brandon wheat’s glumes when inspecting for off-types. CFIA’s Craig Koenig said glumes are used as a secondary indicator if an inspector spots what appears to be an off-type. Koenig showed this slide to make his point.
photo: Allan Dawson

Kenton seed grower Robert Stevenson told the meeting inspectors used to consider two or three factors when looking for off-types in wheat. But with Brandon wheat inspectors are looking at six to eight factors, including glume beak length, he said.

Koenig said glumes are only considered as a secondary factor when something else catches a CFIA check inspector’s eye.

“I can’t rogue for that,” Warren seed farmer Craig Riddell said, referring to the practice of removing off-types by hand. “I can’t go to every tall plant and inspect the glume (which means taking the seed head apart). It’s not practical.”

Butcher described Brandon, an awned, high-yielding semi-dwarf, as “ragged.” He said there’s a lot of variance in how plants look, unlike the awnless wheats of 20 years ago that were tabletop flat and very uniform.

Some growers and inspectors also suspect off-types are the result of environmental conditions.

There’s also a view that plant breeders should include more of the naturally occurring variances in their crop descriptions so they are not considered off-types by inspectors.

Seed source

What growers, inspectors and CFIA agree on is the high number of off-types in soybeans often starts with poor breeder seed.

“When you have that many varieties introduced, over time you are going to see problems, you’re going to see big problems,” Koenig said.

Another factor is that a lot of soybean seed comes from the United States where there’s a higher tolerance for off-types. Option is to lower Canada’s standard. Manitoba Seed Growers’ Association president Ray Askin said that makes sense.

“If it’s going for crushing and animal feed and vegetable oil production those standards don’t necessarily need to be as stringent (versus food-grade soybeans),” Askin said. “We could become more aligned with American or European standards, which are considerably more forgiving than ours.”

There were big differences in the number of off-types reported in soybean seed crops this year in Manitoba, Koenig said. In two higher-generation seed plots private inspectors found two and five off-types, versus 392 and 41, respectively, found by CFIA.

“It’s not a matter of us being more strict on the standards,” he said, noting that Saskatchewan had just 101 pedigreed soybean fields compared to Manitoba’s more than 1,700. “You inspect more, you’re going to find more.”

That gap between private check inspections is a big concern, Riddell said.

“As somebody who is involved in high-generation production I don’t think our company can take the risk… until somehow that gap can be closed,” he said.

More training

Additional training for private inspectors is optional now, but Riddell said mandatory training should be considered.

CFIA has offered to co-operate with private inspectors, but none have taken up the offer, Koenig said.

“If there is an issue at the field… we’ve said, ‘we will meet you at the field, we’ll look at what you’re looking at and then we will identify things,’” he said.

“To this date no one has come.”

AgCall has never received such an invitation, Butcher said, adding, he couldn’t speak for other inspection companies.

“If they (CFIA) called us we’d be there in a minute,” he said. “In many cases we’ve phoned them and asked them to come out and they have ignored us.”

After CFIA trains private inspectors it’s up to inspection companies to continue mentoring its staff, Koenig said. Some company lead inspectors need to do less inspecting and spend more time assisting inspectors, he added.

CFIA wants to work with seed growers and inspectors, Koenig concluded.

“I have a very open-door policy,” he said. “Bonnie (Steward, manager of CFIA’s seed program in Manitoba) is available pretty much 24-7 in the summertime and answers a lot of questions.

What I think is happening, there is an issue with seed source — the quantity of seed that’s being grown (by seed growers).

“If you feel that you are being attacked that’s not the case.

“What we are trying to do is make sure the integrity of the system remains. You invest in that and we’re paid to do that by taxpayers and by yourselves. We want to make sure the best possible seed source is in the market and that market access is maintained not only domestically but internationally.”

After the first year of privatizing seed inspection, seed growers and CFIA said the transition went better than expected. But after four years, they agree it’s still a work in progress.

About the author

Reporter

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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