Private sector pivotal in wheat’s future

Variety development | Breeders need greater royalties as incentive, says wheat commission chair

EDMONTON — Farmers need to discuss ways to increase investment in wheat research so they retain the cereal as a viable crop.

Kent Erickson, chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said they must start asking themselves if more producer involvement is needed, if they want to own plant breeding programs or facilities and what role Agriculture Canada should play in future plant breeding.

“We need private industry, public and producers to step up if we want to advance cereals in Canada,” he told a meeting during FarmTech, held Jan. 28-30 in Edmonton.

He said canola has been profitable for farmers, and they need to look closely at that model for possible ideas.

Erickson said more than $300 million of the $1 billion in canola seed sales in Canada goes back into plant breeding.

With cereals, 90 percent of seeded acres are public varieties through conventional breeding, and little is returned to the plant breeder for new innovation.

Agriculture Canada invests $22 to $25 million in variety development with only $5 million returned in royalties.

“What private farm would invest in a business plan with that type of return,” Erickson said.

Simon Phillips, a plant breeder with Syngenta, said the company is the largest cereal breeder in the world and wants to continue to develop new wheat varieties.

“There are 550 million acres of wheat worldwide. It is a very important crop,” he said.

Phillips said a partnership between private breeders, public breeders and producers is working in other countries.

For example, public breeders in the United Kingdom do a lot of pre-breeding research, looking for traits and germplasm. The private companies use the germplasm in their crop development programs.

“You need better varieties going forward,” he said.

“You need the right quality of products going forward. You’ve got an incredible name in Canada for your high quality spring wheat. You need to keep this, but maybe not 80 percent of your crop needs to be that.”

Phillips said more money needs to be spent to get better plant varieties in Canada.

Syngenta has increased spending in Canada considerably over the past three years, he added.

“We believe in the future.”

Phillips said the company is working intensively on hybrid wheat, which is one of the ways it believes it can improve yields and introduce new traits.

Conventional plant breeding in most countries increases yields three-quarters to one percent a year.

New breeding techniques have dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to pinpoint traits and bring them to commercialization.

He said his company’s hybrid winter barley increased yields 15 to 18 percent in Europe.

“We were able to bring up the average yield across the entire field. That is what a hybrid can do. That is what hybrids can do in corn and soy.”

Neil Gorda, who farms near Willingdon, Alta., said he is worried that turning cereal plant breeding over to private researchers will eliminate any involvement with public breeders.

“That does concern me. Can we overcome that problem today and in the future?” he said.

“As a farmer, as Canadians, we get more value for farmers if plant breeding is fully funding and a public institution.”

Erickson said producers have an obligation to put money into seed research.

“We’re going to have to try and find some way of returning investment.”

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