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.
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.
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.