It’s no secret that the seed business has undergone dramatic changes over the past two decades.
But two graphic examples have surfaced recently that illustrate some unforeseen consequences of those changes.
The first, cancellation of the annual seed show at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on how farmers make decisions. The century-old event was a casualty of the shift away from farm-saved seed, a shift that has occurred for a host of reasons.
With some crops, farmers are no longer allowed to save their own seed for replanting due to contractual obligations. With others, hybrids have become the dominant source of seed, and they can’t be replanted due to genetic breakdown. In the case of flax, market access issues appear to be pushing farmers towards certified seed.
Combine that trend with the fact that there are fewer farmers, and those in the business have less time to spend selecting and polishing samples, and entries declined to the point where show organizers decided to change the focus away from recognizing the farmer’s eye for selecting good seed, to educating a largely urban population on how plants grow.
The seed show isn’t something that most farmers took much notice of anymore anyway; but the shift is telling all the same. In the past, farmers selected seed from their annual harvest based on how it performed on their farms. That applied to both environmental conditions such as microclimate and soil type, as well as their management styles.
For example, farmers operating under a low-input regime might have selected different genetics than farmers who were prepared to apply all of the production aids required to maximize the genetic potential of their seed stock.
Although the genetic differences may have been small, they were nonetheless specific to that farmer’s skill and knowledge of the role the seed they selected played in their farm operation’s success.
That knowledge is now largely centralized into the laboratories of the seed developers. As well, that seed development industry is rapidly becoming privatized, which is also a transition away from the days when public plant breeders were the key generators of varietal improvement.
This is not to say these shifts have been all bad. Judging from their popularity with farmers, the introduction of herbicide-tolerant traits in canola – both from the genetically modified and mutagenesis processes – has offered a vast improvement to farmers’ ability to consistently harvest a profitable crop. Hybrids have offered equally advantageous yield boosts to crops such as corn and canola.
But there is now evidence that seed developers are increasingly unwilling to subject their varieties to independent scrutiny in performance trials, which further erodes farmers’ ability to make informed decisions.
Unlike the disappearance of the seed show, the decision of the major canola seed developers to pull out of the Prairie Canola Variety Trials this year is likely to have a major effect on how farmers make decisions when selecting which seed is best for their farm operation.
The stated reason for this collective decision to effectively shut down independent varietal testing is that the small-plot trials are too small to effectively measure their product’s performance. The companies have also complained that, although weeds were controlled in a standardized fashion in these plots, the herbicide-tolerant varieties were not treated with the products to which the genetics are linked.
Sources familiar with how to run objective scientific testing say neither of those argument’s explanations are valid.
A more likely reason is that, due to the yield dominance by one company’s hybrids, the others have become loath to invest money entering a horse race that makes the competition look good.
In days gone by, companies didn’t have to pay for this testing. It was done by the provincial governments. But with now more than 200 canola varieties on the market, this is no longer affordable. And it is questionable, given the control seed companies now have over how their seed products are used, whether an independent body would even be given permission to carry out such testing.
This development places farmers at a huge disadvantage. With new seed releases, they must now rely on what the developers say about their own products based on their own private trials. These varieties will not be subjected to standardized tests over a wide geographic base. And varieties that were tried and true tend to be deregistered and pulled from the market as new genetics come forward.
Farmers’ only other source of reliable varietal performance information is through the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation data, which is based on actual field experience and published annually in Yield Manitoba.
Unless something is done to emphasize the value of independent testing, from here on in, buying canola seed is an act of faith. [email protected]