Funding loss a blow to oat research

Public oat breeding has taken a major blow with PepsiCo pulling funding support from all oat breeding research in Canada.

“In total it’s nearly $600,000 per year that they’ve eliminated, so now PepsiCo/Quaker is not helping to fund any oat breeding programs in Canada as far as we know,” said Shawna Mathieson, executive director of the Prairie Oat Growers Association.

Quaker, which was acquired by PepsiCo in 2000, had been a longtime oat research supporter in Canada, but is now the only major miller in Western Canada that isn’t helping to fund POGA research initiatives, Mathieson said.

PepsiCo began cutting funding to breeding programs in Canada in the middle of last year, including Agriculture Canada’s breeding program at Brandon, which helps support programs across Western Canada. Funding was also pulled from Agriculture Canada’s oat-breeding program in Ottawa.

PepsiCo withdrew approximately $80,000 from public oat breeding programs run through Agriculture Canada research centres.

However, the loss of funding is amplified because the Agriculture Canada funding scheme through Canadian Agricultural Partnership, which took effect April 2018, sees federal research money match industry funding.

As a result, the $80,000 hit from PepsiCo’s withdrawal is exaggerated by a further reduction of $80,000 in federal funding.

Before last April, Growing Forward and then Growing Forward 2 provided 75 percent of plant breeding funds.

As well, PepsiCo pulled $500,000 in funding from the oat breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre in Saskatoon at the beginning of this year.

CAP had not been matching PepsiCo funding to the CDC, so the total loss of funding for oat breeding in Canada since last summer is $660,000, including the shortfall from PepsiCo’s withdrawal as well as the reduced federal funding.

Alan Butuk, an oat grower from Insinger, Sask., who sits on the POGA board, said funding responsibility for breeding research is being increasingly off-loaded onto farmers through checkoffs, even though the entire industry benefits from the research.

“We’re certainly seeing that with the asks we’re getting at the Prairie Oat Growers Association. We’re getting more requests for funding because of the fact that a lot of the sectors are reducing the funding they’re putting in,” Butuk said.

“When we see an industry pull out of funding like PepsiCo has done, do we slow down the research and we don’t advance as fast as other countries are? Or how do we find that middle ground, where we keep advancing and keeping pace with what other parts of the world are doing?”

He said public breeding programs are needed to help crop varieties adapt to upcoming changes in agriculture.

“Public oat breeding will address concerns of many parts of the sector,” Butuk said.

“Some of the private ones tend to be more focused on the actual needs of their own markets. (Public breeding addresses) yield gains to bushel weights to disease control. The disease issues across Western Canada vary quite a bit, so if they only focus on one region you might not get the breeding research needed to cover all of the areas.”

Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, an oat breeder at Agriculture Canada’s Brandon research centre, said breeding will be challenging without PepsiCo’s support.

“I believe we are going to have to drop some of the activities that we were doing, just because we don’t have the funding available,” she said.

“We won’t be able to do as much as we were, but the other industry partners are still there, so the program will continue.”

Her focus is to develop milling quality oat cultivars for Western Canada that have high beta glucan with a healthy amount of oil, high test weight and plump uniform seed so that millers can get the most efficient yield in their product.

“We also want good agronomically superior cultivars that the producers can plant on their land and know that they’ll get a good yield back, and it will be disease resistant and it will be an end product that the millers will want to buy,” Mitchell Fetch said.

Mathieson said POGA and the rest of the industry partners are trying to adjust to the loss of PepsiCo funding.

“POGA encourages the Canadian oat growers to sell their oats to companies that are supporting their farms and families and those companies that appreciate the dedication required for long-term farming success,” Mathieson said.

She said PepsiCo sources nearly all of its oats for Quaker from Canadian growers.

PepsiCo was asked to comment but didn’t make a representative available before press time July 16.

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