More support neededto boost oat research

It is unfortunate that PepsiCo is withdrawing its research funding for oats.

The unheralded crop has lost market share over the years to canola in Canada and corn in the United States but the smart money still has a lot of interest in oats.

At 3.1 million seeded acres this year in Canada, oats are behind lentils, but we should be wary of dropping research dollars from a crop that provides reliable income for farmers and is healthy for humans, livestock and the environment.

PepsiCo, which owns Quaker Oats, has withdrawn more than $500,000 in research funding from oats. Together with government funds, $600,000 has been taken from crop research. That may not sound like a lot but with oats now competing with other minor crops for funding, it has an impact.

It’s important to note the benefits of a crop that used to be a staple for Canadian farmers. Oats help to break up soil and hold moisture. The protein has been likened in quality to soy, meat, milk and eggs. They are rich in fibre and the beta glucan they contain helps lower cholesterol levels.

Oats also provide a good canopy to shelter soil and impede weed growth. The crop’s straw is even preferred for cattle and horse bedding because it is soft, absorbent and produces less dust.

Oats tend to be the go-to crop for farmers when something happens to upset the growing season, such as a wet spring or a late frost. In the right conditions, farmers can plant oats in early June and harvest in late August and still get a reliable return. They are frost tough and, for feed, snow resilient.

Oats don’t need a lot of inputs — most areas outside the Red River Valley require about 55 pounds of nitrogen per acre, but big yields still need to be fed.

Canadian oat exports increased by 5.3 percent in 2016-17 and 9.1 percent last year, mostly to the United States. Quaker sources most of its oats in Canada because of the high quality of the crop grown here. There is also potential to export to China, which imports about 200,000 tonnes a year, representing about nine percent of global imports, if a deal can be reached to remove or lower import tariffs.

So, oats fit well with the federal government’s goal of growing agriculture and food exports to $75 billion annually by 2025. But research is vital if we are to compete with other countries. Canada is third in the world in oats production, behind the European Union and Russia.

If we do not continue to invest in research, we risk losing market share for a crop that can play an important role in crop rotations for farmers. It’s thought that with tight margins on corn and soybeans, oats will have a solid future in North America in the coming years.

Governments have, for years, pulled back from funding crop research, leaving it up to industry. But now we see what happens when industry loses interest. Oats are not big enough to fund research entirely through check-off dollars.

And more research is needed. Current research dollars are funding more than 25 projects, according to the Prairie Oat Growers Association. They include oat breeding, mycotoxins in oats and milling products, the effect of pre-harvest glyphosate on the quality of milling oats, crop sequencing of large-acre and special crops, crown rust resistance, and product development from gluten-free oat fractions. (Fractionation of crops is playing an increasingly important role in crop research and new product development.)

While public dollars cannot fund all research, more energy could be put into encouraging and matching private investment to take full advantage of a crop that fits into Canada’s export strategy and suits increasingly health-conscious lifestyles.

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