Wheat farmers have key role in future of seed breeding

Wheat, despite its highs and lows through the years, remains an important crop.

Its place might have slipped somewhat lately, no longer being the overwhelmingly dominant crop in the West, but it still plays a vital role in rotations and continues to have a place in most profitable operations.

According to some at Agriculture Canada, wheat research has failed to keep pace with other major crops. Yields in Western Canada have risen by an average of only .67 percent since 1990.

Contrast that with canola, which met its goal of producing 15 million tonnes by 2015 two years ahead of schedule, with 50 bushels per acre now being a high-end but achievable target. Some people predict yields could rise to 70 bu. per ac. in the not too distant future.

But today, wheat research seems poised for a resurgence. There’s been talk of new seed genetics that will wake the crop out of its lull. 

If we are witnessing the next big wave of wheat genetic advancements, as many predict, farmers best be prepared to carve out a niche.

Not that there is anything wrong with private corporations being involved in wheat breeding research. Far from it. Corporations have the resources, the labs, the scientists and the production capabilities to provide valuable products.

However, farmers must find a way to get a seat at the table. They need guarantees that part of the money they spend for the latest seed technology goes back into the right kind of development. They need to find ways to become investors and decision makers in the process.

Farmer organizations, advisory committees and boards of directors of agricultural research agencies certainly go a long way in providing this.

New cereal commissions recently set up in each prairie province are now collecting levies, in addition to those collected by the Western Grains Research Foundation. Those organizations are positioned to protect farmer investments.

However, farmers should be cautious about letting too few do too much of the work. It might be easy to become levy weary, especially as commodity prices fall, but seeking a refund of a checkoff lacks a view to the long-term.

Publicly available seed is an important aspect of the overall seed business. There are myriad questions to ask from government and private corporations to ensure it remains a viable option.

The time for farmers to grab hold of a larger piece of the seed breeding pie is now. Farmers might want to look at taking ownership of their own breeding facilities. Perhaps they should seek guarantees that key products will remain available for public use and design new licensing arrangements with seed breeders. 

Maybe end point royalties should come into play, in which producers pay seed breeders based on production rather than a set fee for a specific variety.

With UPOV 91 appearing likely, the need to ensure that effective public varieties remain available becomes more pressing.

Patent protections on private seed are important to encourage a vibrant re-search and development community, but a readily available supply of public seed is equally as important.

Governments also need to step forward and ensure this side of breeding is not left behind.

However, farmers must lead the way.

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