Promotion must accompany improved wheat varieties

Wheat was once the backbone of western Canadian agriculture, but now many farmers consider it to be at best a rotation crop, cultivated to give a disease-fighting break from cash-generating canola.

The Canadian wheat industry is challenged on all sides with low-cost competitors winning market share, diet crazes turning consumers away and inadequate research funding falling behind in providing disease resistance and yield growth.

The problems are not unique to Canada but are felt acutely because our climate restricts the cropping alternatives to wheat.

This is not to denigrate the researchers who laboured hard to make canola and pulses such successes.

The expansion of canola and pulses have kept western Canadian crop production competitive in world markets.

However, think how much more profitable and sustainable it would be if wheat was more resistant to disease and had greater yield potential and a better de-mand outlook.

This year alone, the lack of robust fusarium resistance has cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

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Luckily, after more than a decade of neglect, new attention is being applied to wheat’s research needs, globally and here at home.

On the global front, members of the G20, the association representing the world’s largest economies, launched the Wheat Initiative to bring together government and private resources to address a strategic agenda that will advance research around the world and share the information.

In Canada, Agriculture Canada, the National Research Council, the Saskatchewan government and the University of Saskatchewan are working together on a new initiative to learn more about wheat’s genetic make-up to speed creation of new cultivars and figure out how it can resist disease and use water more efficiently, leading to lines that will have improved resistance to fusarium and rust and are drought tolerant.

This alliance has commercial partners, including Syngenta and KWS.

Bayer has a new wheat breeding facility in Saskatchewan working on hybrid wheat, and a few years ago Dow opened a research centre focused on wheat in Ontario.

Monsanto in the United States has greatly expanded its wheat research effort.

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This new wave of investment will likely start to address the yield lag and disease problems that make it less attractive than other major crops.

However, if this effort simply makes it easier for growers to produce more wheat more efficiently, then problems with oversupply will continue to hurt the profitability of cultivating it. Demand must grow to keep pace.

Corn and soybean yield increases produced better farm profits because the biofuel revolution and globally expanding livestock herds consumed the extra tonnage.

An American study we recently reported on showed that the best bet to increase wheat use lies in human consumption.

That means changing the narrative away from gluten and wheat belly and toward the nutritional qualities and high content of antioxidants found in whole grains. Antioxidants are believed to halt cellular damage associated with diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

That too will require money and effort, but it will be well spent if wheat can again become a cash generator for prairie farmers.

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Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

  • ed

    Yes, the loss of the farmers own CWB price positive single desk cartel has lowered the price of wheat from an average of between 89-93% of the Vancouver Port price, pre CWB kill off, to 40-60% of the Vancouver Port price, post the CWB kill off. All grains have followed suit as the acres get glutted up by the non wheat acre search for high ground. A $4 Billion loss for Prairie Farmers on wheat alone plus much more additional loses on the other crops due to the price depression of it all. People in the world are starving to death while Prairie farmers bravely soldier on, swallowing their pride, and pretend that all is well. In some regards this new generation of farmers are blindly moving forward with more guts than their forefathers. An informed and true coward would stand and fight, fearing their very bleak future.

    • Scott

      Was not wheat acres on the decline and becoming a rotational crop anyways? Disease, better value cash crops such as canola and pulse crops were eating up the dropping in profitability wheat acres well before the CWB was removed. Where did all of the wheat on wheat get us anyhow? Increased input costs because of disease due to poor farming practices…..we are supposed to know better. Most of the farmers I knew bar a handful were calling wheat a rotation crop 2 decades ago. Couple that with very large, costly and public errors made by the CWB’s single desk, which were all absorbed by the farmer with no accountability, kind of leaves a bad taste in ones mouth doesn’t it? We can all say how bad things are now but if a multi million dollar mistake is made in the corporate world the incompetent people get fired and the losses are not absorbed by the producer, the farmer doesn’t get an oh well we will try to not do that again….oops….. send us more wheat.

      • ed

        Actually of the 43 main crops that are grown world wide, rice is the most important and wheat is a close second to that. The rest tail off in volume and importance fairly quickly. Wheat acres have declined since the price drop that was associated with the loss of our CWB collective seller. This was predicted and also is the opposite of what getting rid of the CWB was supposed to do. Well, that is according to the all knowing Anti-CWB, anti-collective thinking types. Chalk one up in the “FAIL” column for them! Make sure it is a long column, and keep it horizontal on the floor, because if you stack it vertically, it is going to fall over.
        Adjusted for inflation, other crops have not lost value as quickly as wheat, so you are kind of correct on the cash crop thing, but more for survival reasons at the expense of the lands sustainability. We should know better, but when it comes to survival, farmers are tough, and will do almost anything before they throw in the towel. That includes but is not limited to, getting much bigger, doing more work, getting talked into growing magic beans, etc., taking as much of your wife’s non farm related employment as is not entirely needed for family use to subsidize the operation, and tanking one commodity market after another, only to have their total aggregate national farm debt reach another all time record peak. They can and have done all this with great courage, living carefully, potentially wearing one shoe or older worn hats, and while enjoying extremely and rare low interest rates. The other shoe will eventually drop when interest rates shoot up 5-10-15%. Pride, greed/need and arrogance abounds and it is as always not that easy to do the dot to dot CSI thingy on the causes if you are not paying attention. Wheat at $6-7/bushel may now be a rotational crop for some producers, but at farm gate values through the CWB as high as $12.64 for #2 15.5 for the entire 2007-2008 pool, a 50-60 bushel crop was worth between $632-758 / acre. For a lower input and easy on the soil kind of crop, that was not that bad in decade old dollars. The corporate world made no mistakes making nursing many farmers into thinking like they think and quietly awaiting the multi billion dollar positive results of years of covert propaganda thru town hall meetings, producer groups, political channels and stealth like mass media campaigns. Not too many will be fired over those successes, most got handsome bonuses for a job well done. On the farmer’s side of things, they are bravely absorbing, working off or deferring the offsetting losses. If there is something leaving a bad taste in a farmers mouth these days, that is what is causing it.