A new review for the Prairie wheat varietal registration process could prove contentious, with defenders calling it key to Canada’s quality brand and its detractors saying it is a barrier to innovation.
The industry was already looking at the system in anticipation of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly ending. A year ago, it agreed to broaden the end-use quality parameters in the Canadian Prairie Red Spring (red) class making it easier to register what some believe to be higher yielding, but lower-protein American wheats.
But the industry also agreed the premier Canadian Western Red Spring and Canadian Amber durum wheat classes should be preserved to protect Canada’s brand. The Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale’s (PRCWRT) quality evaluation team unanimously agreed here last week to revise the quality standards for CPS wheat.
Right now under the Seeds Act, the industry decides, which varieties should be recommended for registration and the process leading up to that. But Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has his own ideas and laid them out in a Feb. 25 letter to all 17 recommending committees.
“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 said in his letter sent on the eve of the annual Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC) meeting, which includes the PRCWRT.
He wants “unnecessary regulatory burden” to be removed and said he’ll consult with the industry over the next several months.
Committees should consider cutting the number of years new varieties are tested, the amount of data collected and to accept foreign data where appropriate, Ritz said. He wants committee chairs to report to him on the reforms they plan over the next year.
The PRCWRT planned to review its operating procedures last week. Instead chair Brian Beres, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) biologist at Lethbridge, said he’ll form a working group of 10 to 12 committee volunteers to respond to Ritz’s request.
There’s room for improvement, but some of the concerns about variety registration “are just nonsense,” Beres said. “I think you collect data properly that adheres to proper scientific principles or don’t do it,” he told the PRCWRT meeting.
Committee member Leo Meyer, a farmer from Woking, Alta., was critical of Ritz’s letter saying the minister was influenced by people who don’t understand the registration system.
“They’re calling this (recommending committee) meeting ‘red tape,’” Meyer said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. We need proper information.”
The registration process is transparent with procedures publicly posted on the PGDC website. The committee’s meetings are open to the public, including reporters. Committee membership is open to qualified experts, including farmers.
But some, including the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, claim the process is subjective, unpredictable, political and dominated by experts from publicly funded institutions biased against private-sector varieties.
The PRCWRT has three evaluation teams with expert members from public and private institutions as well as farmers. One team assesses the agronomy of a new wheat, another diseases and the third examines end-use quality.
Each team meets separately to assess up to three years of data. Members vote by a show of hands on whether to recommend a variety for registration.
Then the three teams meet collectively and, in a secret ballot, vote whether to recommend a variety for registration. The number of voting team members is capped, so no one team has a veto.
With up to 49 different standards being assessed, some wonder if the PRCWRT committee couldn’t streamline the process, said Brian Lemon, a senior official with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which administers the Seeds Act.
Canada’s wheat registration system makes it less competitive than the United States, Norm Dreger, Syngenta’s head of cereals for North America, told the meeting.
“In some jurisdictions (U.S.) it’s about reputation (of seed companies), in others it’s about regulation and I think we know where Canada sits,” he said, adding the private sector has nothing to gain from promoting substandard varieties.
“We just don’t put poor product on the market. You do it once and then you’re done, so you just don’t.”
If Canada’s wheat sector agrees, it can adopt a U.S.-style system. Ron DePauw, an AAFC wheat breeder at Swift Current said one option is moving, wheat, rye and triticale registration to Tier 2 under the Seeds Act.
With that change, new wheats would still undergo some pre-registration testing, but would no longer be scrutinized for merit or require the blessing of a recommending committee.
But in an interview, DePauw said he’d oppose moving wheat. He suggested it so people would consider the alternative.
Farmers, seed companies and end-users would still need data to decide which class a new variety belongs in and whether it meets farmer and end-user needs, he said.
“Farmers don’t want more, they want better,” he said. “So how do you determine, which of these new ones are just ‘me too’ or is it better? You need the performance information.
“You can’t get around the cost. Right now we’ve got a very efficient way of doing it.”
Fairview, Alta. seed grower Henry Vos said farmers and end-users should decide what varieties to grow, not a committee. Western farmers pay $1 billion a year for canola seed but only $100 million for wheat seed, he said. More is spent on canola because it pays better, Vos said. Farmers will invest more in wheat if they see a benefit.
Implementing UPOV ‘91 (International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants), would encourage more wheat research in Canada by ensuring breeders get a return on investment, he said.
Funding is the issue, Oak River, Manitoba seed grower Eric McLean told the meeting.
“I don’t think the (registration) process is broken…,” he said in an interview later. “I think the process is broken with respect to the funding model.”
The perception that canola yields are increasing faster than wheat is another knock on the system. But Rob Graf, an AAFC wheat breeder at Lethbridge, presented data to show the gap isn’t that big.
The annual yield increase per year for canola in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba was 1.9, 1.2 and 1.7 per cent, respectively between 1981-82 and 2012-13. Spring wheat gained almost as much — 1.6, 1.1 and 1.2 per cent.
The rate of gain in winter wheat beat them all at 1.9, 2.3 and 3.3, per cent, respectively.
“So I guess the message is let’s be careful with what we do,” he said. “We’ve got a good system. It needs some tweaking, but let’s not throw it out completely.”