Ordinarily voting over whether to recommend new wheat, rye or triticale varieties for registration can stretch on well into the afternoon.
This year it was over before the morning coffee break at the annual meeting of the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT) in Winnipeg Mar. 2.
Many participants said they thought it was a record for the group, and in no small way former federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz is the reason why.
The process has been streamlined — one of several reforms Ritz asked the PRCWRT and 16 other recommending committees to do when he wrote them in 2013.
“I am challenging you to think about the future of variety registration and how best to ensure that Canada has an approach going forward that encourages innovation in variety development and balances the interests of producers and the entire value chain,” Ritz wrote.
Some saw the letter as the beginning of the end for recommending committees, which its critics alleged were bureaucratic and an impediment to getting new, higher-yielding varieties to farmers faster.
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This year there were just 18 candidate cultivars before the PRCWRT, and a dozen weren’t up for voting because they’d already been supported for registration by the agronomic, disease and end-use evaluation teams, which results in an automatic registration recommendation, just one of the streamlining measures introduced since Ritz threw down the gauntlet. Before they’d come back to the full committee for further discussion and voting.
This year only six varieties came before the cultivar voting panel (CVP), a subgroup of the PRCWRT, whose members represent the entire wheat value chain including farmers, breeders, agronomists, plant pathologists, exporters and end-users. Up to 23 of the PRCWRT’s members serve on the CVP.
The CVP’s creation is another streamlining measure. It reduced the number of people voting, while still allowing all PRCWRT members to give expert insight.
The CVP also addresses Ritz’s concern that the process reflect the industry and its needs.
At the PRCWRT meeting in 2013, Fairfax, Alta., seed grower Henry Vos said farmers and end-users should decide what varieties to grow, not a committee. But this year Vos said creating the CVP and having wheat commission representatives on it, is an important change. He said in the past, farmers had little formal involvement or voice on the committee. Today he represents the Alberta Wheat Commission’s 14,000 farmer members on the CVP.
“I like the committee structure,” Vos said. “I like the input of all the individuals. On varieties where there are concerns we have the cultivar voting panel, which represents the whole value chain. That is the most important part.”
Much of what Ritz sought has been accomplished, said Brian Beres, a former PRCWRT chair and member of the ad hoc committee working on reforming the PRCWRT, following this year’s meeting. He said the group worked very hard along with the PRCWRT’s outgoing chair Curtis Pozniak, who is a durum breeder at the University of Saskatchewan, to streamline the process.
“We wanted to get ahead of this and complete it well before the (February) 2018 deadline,” Beres said.
Another improvement is a spreadsheet-based decision-making tool developed by Rob Graf, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada winter wheat breeder at Lethbridge. First used four years ago by the agronomy team, it automatically assesses whether a new wheat meets the agronomic standards for its intended class.
The latest version flags varieties that don’t meet the standard. Shortcomings are later presented to the PRCWRT and discussed. There’s an opportunity to weigh what’s substandard, against a variety’s attributes. For example, a new wheat might have a poor yield, but outstanding resistance to a major disease such as fusarium head blight.
Having heard the discussion, CVP members vote in a secret ballot to support the “flagged” varieties for registration or not.
A version of the decision tool, has been designed for, and is being used by, the disease team. A similar tool is being considered by the quality team.
This addresses Ritz’s stated desire to make merit assessment more transparent, objective and predictable. But sometimes there are nuances, which is when the expertise of PRCWRT members comes into play, Graf said. If every decision regarding the merit of a new variety was black and white there would be no point in having a recommending committee, Graf has said in the past.
The recommending committee, especially for wheat, has had its critics, including the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA). It claimed the process was subjective and political.
“It will be the marketplace, farmers and end-use customers that decide on a variety rather than its fate being determined by a room full of competitors,” Cherilyn Nagel, a past WCWGA president, said in 2012 during a panel discussion at the Canada Grains Council’s annual meeting in Winnipeg.
Farmers have been frustrated when higher-yielding wheats, some of them from the United States, failed to be recommended because they didn’t meet the standards of the intended class. But recent changes to the wheat class system, including the creation of the new Canada Northern Hard Red, now means most new wheats have a class to fit in if they meet agronomy and disease standards.
Ritz’s letter reflected critics’ concerns. And while in 2013 some PRCWRT members said the criticism was based on misconceptions, its members quickly agreed to work on improvements. Several said in recent interviews the possibility that Ritz’s real goal was to scrap the PRCWRT, was a strong incentive.
While Ritz deserves credit because he got the ball rolling on reforms, one PRCWRT member said the PRCWRT deserves credit too. Instead of pushing back, it pushed forward, while preserving the integrity of the registration process and its value to the industry.