Wheat is the one big crop that western Canadian farmers can really own, and conversations around how to fund new wheat research — and grab a piece of the breeders’ pie — are picking up steam.
Cereals research has been elevated as an issue since the elimination of the CWB monopoly because the board once had a large role in research on board grain.
It’s time for prairie farm groups to find new ways to fund cereal breeding programs. These programs, as difficult as they may be to organize, should be a ig priority for grower groups, especially for wheat.
Growers may not have a choice. University of Saskatchewan agricultural economics professor Murray Fulton told the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society’s recent meeting in Ottawa that increased government funding for wheat research is not a viable option.
His view is that government doesn’t see a lot of support for significant additional funding for agriculture.
“I’m very worried that we could sleep walk ourselves over a cliff. I think we have to do something bold today,” he said.
He is right. Canadian wheat research has fallen behind other countries, particularly Australia.
Indeed, lack of research is one reason why Canadian wheat yield gains were dead last in a list of 13 countries over a 46-year period, ending in 2007. That list did not even include Australia.
But wheat should never have been left behind. Wheat remains an important part of the prairie crop rotation, a vital component of diets around the world, and even prices have been good lately. And, while Fulton does not believe governments will substantially increase contributions to wheat research, growers must continue to press them for funding, particularly in light of the federal government’s stated innovation agenda.
Still, growers will have to take the lead to ensure a strong future for wheat. Fulton suggested a partnership between producers and companies, wherein producers do not pay royalties on seed, but have end-point royalties deducted at the point of sale. This model is working in Australia, he said. “A game changer is needed in the wheat industry.”
The model for pulse growers, where money from the sale of certified pulse seed is returned to research, is also worth considering.
As farmers increase their funding to wheat research and breeding, their contribution should get them an ownership position in new varieties.
That way they could claim Plant Breeders Rights and have royalties from pedigreed seed sales go back to research and breeding programs they help to direct.
The federal government intends to amend the Plant Breeders Rights Act to better protect breeders’ products and encourage research investment.
New provisions would extend breeders’ rights from 18 to 20 years and give them exclusive control over protected seed. It is still unclear whether the new act would allow farmers to save and clean harvested seed for replanting on their own farms.
If the amendments restrict or end farmers’ replanting rights, going ahead with producer-owned wheat varieties will be even more crucial. As a number of producers attending the recent Keystone Agricultural Producers meeting in Manitoba said, check-off funds will hopefully buy farmers a piece of the wheat and barley breeding business.
Challenges ahead include the fact that wheat is a tough plant to breed and improve. In addition, the question of whether to pursue genetic modification in a global market that is still resistant to GM wheat is one that requires thorough consideration.
Still, if farmers want to own wheat varieties collectively, it will be worth the investment, giving them a right to insist on research input. Funding decisions must be made quickly, however, to expedite a process that will be long and arduous. Western Canada is already too far behind.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.