Cereal grain breeding faces political and trade challenges

BANFF, Alta. — Plant breeders have the technology to transform wheat into a more productive, disease-resistant crop but politics may get in the way.

Farmers could lose access to useful new varieties developed with new genetic technologies because some markets will not accept them, said Stuart Smyth of the University of Saskatchewan. He holds the research chair in agri-food innovation, where his research focuses on innovation and agriculture and the resulting impacts.

“If you can’t export it to Europe or wherever, there is not much incentive for farmers to adopt new varieties,” he said at the Prairie Cereals Summit held in Banff, Alta., on Dec. 13.

“I see this as a real concern. Environmental groups based in Europe could have a potential to affect farmers’ ability to develop new technologies that allow you to be competitive with farmers in the United States, Argentina and Brazil,” he said.

“International politics are going to have an effect on trade in agriculture commodities.”

Curtis Pozniak is the lead wheat and durum breeder at the University of Saskatchewan and is part of the 10 Genomes project, in which scientists are sequencing a number of wheat varieties to examine diversity around the world. They have learned wheat genomes are dramatically different with millions of genetic differences. From there a wheat breeder chip was developed to select the most important differences and use them to select for more predictable breeding results.

Gene editing can also be used to learn what a gene does, and the technology is being pursued in Australia, Europe, China, Canada and the United States.

Funding shortfalls, tight regulations and consumer acceptance are the main impediments for researchers to pursue new breeding and selection techniques, he said.

One area of research focuses on fusarium resistant wheat. With the aid of new technologies, scientists can manipulate the wheat genome in a more predictable way for faster results.

“This is often hard to do using traditional phenotypic selection,” he said.

Smyth said polls show most people know next to nothing about the technology but are willing to share opinions about it.

More than 40 percent of people have no idea about the potential benefits of plant-breeding technologies.

Public acceptance or rejection can sway the success of a product, even if a modified crop proves to have tremendous benefits.

In addition, some technologies are indiscernible from the natural products. Detection is impossible unless by declaration. As well, some genome-edited varieties carry fewer changes than a natural product. The natural rate of mutation affects about 20 genes when new seeds are produced in a season.

“We are trying to regulate at a lower level than natural rate of mutation,” Smyth said.

The United States and Canada have regulated genetically modified crops for 25 years.

“Canadian regulators and the industry have more experience and knowledge in how to regulate and conduct risk assessment than any other country in the world,” said Smyth.

Regulators look at the traits introduced and check to see if there is potential for allergens or toxins now or in the future with short or long term consumption.

Smyth argues Canadian regulations around plants with novel traits need to be reviewed because current rules are a barrier to innovation. The approval process is also expensive.

Farmers need to step up and start talking about what and why they do certain things. They have a good measure of public trust and need to explain why they, as individuals, use certain technologies to reduce chemical use or grow a healthier crop.

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