Producer-gov’t research deal proposed

A University of Saskatchewan economist says producer groups should explore an agreement with Agriculture Canada that gives growers an ownership stake in the country’s federally owned plant breeding resources.

Richard Gray, a leading expert on seed royalty systems and plant-breeding partnerships, says producer groups including provincial cereal commissions should explore becoming long-term partners with Ottawa in a new plant-breeding institution that relies on public funding, as well as producer dollars.

Gray said the creation of a public-producer partnership would ensure the continuation of plant-breeding activities currently being performed by scientists at Agriculture Canada.

It could also give producers an ownership stake and decision making authority in what is widely recognized as the country’s most productive and successful cereal-breeding programs.

Gray shared details of what a producer-public partnership might look like during a Jan. 15 session at CropSphere in Saskatoon.

“I think producer groups (including provincial cereal commissions) have to be a bit bold and ask themselves how we can envision the world of plant breeding differently,” Gray said.

“Is there a way to create a new federal system with matching (producer and government) funding and can we start talking about such a partnership in a very earnest way?

“Let’s not assume that Ag Canada won’t go there. Let’s actually insist that they do, and see what happens.”

Concerns over the future of plant-breeding programs at Ag Canada have been front and centre in ongoing industry-wide discussions about the introduction of new seed royalties.

Producer groups have stated they want Agriculture Canada to continue to play an important role in developing finished varieties for common crops such as spring wheat, durum and barley.

Producers who attended CropSphere said there is lingering uncertainty as to whether Ag Canada intends to continue producing market-ready cereal varieties, or if it plans to focus on upstream research, such as trait development, leaving variety development and commercialization to industry partners outside of government.

Gray said a formal long-term partnership involving producer dollars and government funding is a feasible option that would meet government and producer objectives.

The creation of a new public-producer breeding institution would also make the introduction of a new seed royalty collection system more appealing to growers because they would have an ownership stake in the organization and a say in how seed royalty dollars are re-invested.

“I’d say the ball is very much in producers’ court on this … but I’d say it’s in Agriculture Canada’s court as well,” Gray said.

“I think one of the keys to this discussion is whether Ag Canada has an appetite to create such an organization — effectively a long-term producer-public partnership that outlasts any particular government and goes beyond the five-year core breeding agreements that currently exist.”

To proceed, Ag Canada would have to signal that it is open to considering such a partnership, Gray said. Producer groups would have to coalesce and agree on the details.

Gray has studied the evolution of government-owned plant-breeding programs in a variety of countries including Australia, France and the United Kingdom.

Under the current core funding agreement, western Canadian wheat growers contributed about $20 million over five years to Ag Canada’s wheat and durum breeding programs.

The Canadian Wheat Research Coalition (CWRC), which consists of provincial wheat commissions in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, is currently negotiating a new core funding agreement with Ag Canada.

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