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Opinion: The ongoing class struggle

What’s fuelling new concerns about Western Canada’s wheat classification system?

Their timing seems off.

Three years ago after consulting and reaching a consensus with Western Canada’s grain industry, the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) changed the end-use quality standards of two major wheat classes to address customer complaints about end-use quality, including low gluten strength.

Now Cereals Canada’s executive director Cam Dahl says the wheat classification system needs to be reformed because it lacks transparency, isn’t tied to the economic impact on farmers and needs more industry input.

The Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) agrees.

Wheat classes are important to Canada’s wheat quality brand providing customers with the consistent quality they count on, while making handling and transportation more efficient.

The AWC has advocated for replacing grade with specifications instead of grades, perhaps making classes redundant. (Both grade and specs are in use now.)

Meanwhile, some private wheat-breeding companies have complained making high quality a prerequisite for the Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) class is an impediment to developing new wheats. And some of those companies, along with the AWC, are members of Cereals Canada.

The apparent spark was the CGC’s April 20 announcement to transfer five CWRS wheats, including AAC Redwater and AC Muchmore, to the lower-priced Canada Northern Hard Red (CNHR) class Aug. 1, 2021.

Both are popular with Alberta farmers, but the CGC says after two years of testing both failed to meet the new end-use standard for the CWRS class.

The AWC and Cereals Canada say a balance is needed between the interests of the farmers who produce the wheat and the customers who buy and process it.

Agreed. But it also seems they want to have their cake and eat it too, arguing that wheats that no longer meet the revised CWRS end-use standard remain in the class because they are high yielding and popular with farmers.

But think about it. The class doesn’t set wheat prices, the open market does.

The CWRS class traditionally earns a higher price because of its high end-use quality and consistency one cargo to the next. But if its quality is undermined, the price will soon reflect it. That’s why the industry agreed to change the standards — to protect the brand, the price and markets.

Wheats in the new CNHR class generally yield more, have lower gluten strength and earn less. But sometimes farmers earn more from those wheats because the higher yield offsets the lower price.

Farmers are free to choose what wheats they grow and do so based on expectations of net returns. It’s market driven.

Under the Canada Grain Act the CGC is mandated to classify every wheat registered in Canada. There is one criterion — does it meet the end-use quality standards set for the class?

Instead of leaving AAC Redwater and AC Muchmore in the CWRS class, the proper approach is to revise the class standard. Again. But that means reverting to previous standard, which is what led to the customer complaints in the first place.

One can argue a variety with substandard gluten strength is unlikely to taint the entire class if it’s only grown on a small number of acres. However, with fewer elevators there’s less commingling, which could result in some cargoes being dominated by one or two substandard varieties.

There’s also the possibility a combination of low-gluten varieties could undermine the quality of the class. When customers started complaining about poor gluten strength the varieties Harvest, Lillian and Unity — all on the bottom of the then-acceptable gluten strength scale — made up 40 per cent of the CWRS class.

According to AWC general manager Tom Steve, consensus to revise the class standards was forced. The record doesn’t show much opposition, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

But consensus also doesn’t mean unanimity.

The CGC disputes Dahl’s claims about a lack transparency and industry input. It says much of the work in wheat class quality standards is done through the Prairie Recommending Committee on Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT).

When interviewed April 26, Dahl said the PRCWRT “isn’t necessarily the place for that to occur.”

But given the committee represents the breadth of Western Canada’s grain sector from wheat breeders and farmers to exporters and end-users, and its meetings are open to the public and reporters, it seems the ideal venue.

Asked if Cereals Canada was pushing the wheat-breeding companies’ agenda, Dahl said there are a couple of drivers.

“One of them is from producers who understand that access to innovation is a competitive advantage to them.”

Interesting. The breeding companies have the same message.

“It’s a trade-off,” Dahl said.

It is and it isn’t. There’s no denying developing high-yielding wheats, with high milling and baking quality is harder than developing high-yielding, lower-quality wheat. The trade-off is quality versus yield.

But the class system isn’t blocking innovation, it’s just putting newly registered wheats in categories that match their end-use qualities, including the Canada Special Purpose class that has no end-use milling standard at all.

As SeCan’s Todd Hyra has said: “We can register just about anything that we think we can sell.” And with 10 wheat classes the CGC can classify them too.

No system is perfect. Wheat class end-use standards can, and will be changed, preferably with industry input and in a way that best serves the whole sector, including farmers.

Sometimes there’s a solution that allows the best of both worlds.

Arguably that’s the case with the creation of the CNHR class. For years farmers sought to grow higher-yielding American wheats but there was no class for them until CNHR was created three years ago.

It’s human nature to want our cake and eat it too, but there’s a risk of ending up with neither.

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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