Former scientist puts Canadian wheat research under the microscope

Stephen Morgan Jones discussed his findings and offered a prescription during the Canadian Global Crops Symposium

Canadian wheat research needs to pull itself together.

Right now there isn’t enough focus and co-ordination, there are too many parochial decisions being made at the provincial level, and the projects that receive support are too small and scattered, says a former senior research manager with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

There are too many poorly funded wheat research projects, according to former Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research manager turned consultant Stephen Morgan Jones. He said the research needs to be more focused and better co-ordinated.

There are too many poorly funded wheat research projects, according to former Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research manager turned consultant Stephen Morgan Jones. He said the research needs to be more focused and better co-ordinated.
photo: Allan Dawson

“The average size of an agronomy project is $60,000 (a year), which is pretty damn small, while the average size of the discovery project is around $300,000,” Stephen Morgan Jones told the Canada Global Crops Symposium in Winnipeg April 13.

“Perhaps what’s more important is there are no real targets as to what we really want to achieve with that research investment. So for example we talk about increasing wheat yield, but do we really have any idea of where we want to get to over the next five to 15 years?

“I don’t think we have that and in not having that we really have really very little to measure against as to whether we are being successful or not.”

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Morgan Jones, who retired from AAFC in 2013 as director general of the Prairie/Boreal Plain Ecozone Science, heads his own consulting firm called Amaethon in Lethbridge, Alta.

Morgan Jones said wheat research would benefit from greater co-operation among national and provincial funders, including provincial wheat commissions, which can be insular, especially with agronomic research.

“Saskatchewan (agronomic) work is funded in Saskatchewan and Alberta work is funded in Alberta and the provinces tend to give grants to fairly large numbers of people and as a result of that we have this small funding (per project),” Morgan Jones told reporters later.

A well-prepared plan would make it easier to get more federal government funding, he added.

Wheat research co-ordination is necessary and is improving, said Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission.

“The three provincial wheat commissions… have all been taking and we have been co-investing in certain projects where it makes sense,” Steve said later in an interview. “We have started making a lot of progress in that area.”

About $45 million is invested annually into publicly funded wheat research.

There are 266 active public research projects, based on Cereal Canada’s newly developed research database. They fit in five main categories: discovery, variety development, pathology/entomology, agronomy and quality.

number of active wheat projects

photo: Source: Cereals Canada Project Database

Most of the projects — almost 80 — are on pathology/entomology, followed by variety development, at just over 60 and agronomy at just under 60.

However, most of the money — 40 per cent — goes to variety development, followed by discovery research at just under 30 per cent, pathology/entomology at just under 20 per cent and agronomy and quality at about nine and seven per cent, respectively.

“I would question as to how much overall progress those projects are going to make just based on the resource commitments,” Morgan Jones said.

The same applies to disease research, he said. There are more than 30 projects on fusarium head blight, a yield- and quality-robbing fungal disease, but after 25 years and millions spent, little headway has been made, he said.

“The obvious small project size and scope of agronomy projects I think is a cause for concern.”

Wheat yields increase on average by about 1.3 per cent a year, Morgan Jones said. About half comes from improved genetics and the rest from improved agronomy, estimates suggest, but agronomy gets less than 10 per cent of total research funding.

“I would argue that because of that importance of crop management in the overall picture that it needs a lot more investment,” he said.

Public investment in agronomy makes sense because it’s an area in which the private sector doesn’t get much return on investment. Farmers also see “independent” agronomy research as more trustworthy, Morgan Jones said.

There are tensions over who should co-ordinate wheat research. Cereals Canada was formed to represent the wheat value chain after the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly ended in 2012.

“But it needs the support of the organizations that are not at this point in time a participant in Cereals Can­ada,” he said, alluding to the Saskatchewan Wheat Develop­ment Com­mission. That group hasn’t joined Cereals Can­ada, arguing it lacks farmer representation.

The Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), founded in 1981 with an endowment fund started with surplus money from a defunct farm support program, has years of experience. It also used to collect a checkoff from the wheat board’s final payments to farmers. When the board’s monopoly ended the checkoff was put on at the point of wheat sales, but ends July 31, 2017. Then the money will be collected and spent by the provincial wheat commissions.

“Now whether it (WGRF) is the right organization to bring that forward and represent all of Western Canada, that I think would be a matter of debate,” Morgan Jones said. “I think we need to move it up to be a national discussion rather than a regional discussion and build up the national priorities.”

Much of the new research technology can be done in any laboratory across the country, he said.

Asked if there are too many groups, including provincial ones, Morgan Jones said: “That’s a minefield. All I would say… is each one performs a purpose, but there is a cost to that purpose so at the end of the day the efficiency of some of those services delivered may be questioned.”

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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