Customers praise CIGI on wheat gluten research

While new wheat varieties may be high yielding or be disease resistant, the real test comes in the grain institute’s test bakery.  |  File photo

Better wheat, better bread | The grain institute is studying the influence of weather, moisture, herbicides and fungicides

The nation’s grain industry has made huge progress and responded effectively to concerns regarding the gluten strength of Canadian wheat, said Earl Geddes, Canadian International Grains Institute chief executive officer.

COFCO, China’s state-owned agricultural trading company, complained about the inconsistency and baking properties of Canadian wheat in the spring of 2013.

Geddes said Canada’s wheat industry, including plant breeders, grain exporters, Canadian Grains Commission and CIGI staff have spent “an inordinate amount of time” trying to understand the cause of the inconsistency.

“The reaction from customers has been tremendous,” Geddes said, during a press conference at the CIGI research bakery in downtown Winnipeg. “(COFCO) said, holy smokes, all we did is raise a concern and you’ve taken your industry and turned it upside down.”

On June 6 the federal government announced $5 million in funding to expand research at CIGI over the next five years, so the institute can maintain Canada’s international reputation for high quality grains and help develop innovative new products.

Rex Newkirk, CIGI director of research and business development, said the investment is significant when considered in the context of the institute’s annual budget of $8 million.

“In the past all our funding from the federal government came from the marketing side of things,” he said, noting the $5 million is earmarked for CIGI research.

Newkirk said CIGI will spend a portion of the funding on the “gluten strength issue.”

“We’re getting a much better insight into what might have occurred over the last number of years and (what) can cause some of these changes.”

One factor is the interaction between wheat variety and weather, Newkirk said.

“It appears from our research there are certain varieties that are quite resilient. Over a long range of environmental (conditions) they will produce a high (gluten strength),” he said.

“Others are more sensitive…. If you are going to use these varieties that are more sensitive, what happens… when you get some excess moisture in July?”

Newkirk said scientists are also studying the influence of herbicides and fungicides on wheat properties.

“This year, at least, with the pre-harvest glyphosate, it looks like it caused some increase in (gluten) strength,” he said.

“Fungicide, we’re still not certain it’s really having too much of an impact… we’re not seeing a lot of weakness caused by it.”

Newkirk said the conclusions are preliminary because they’re based on one year of data. CIGI scientists are replicating the research this year.

As Canadian farmers adopt new wheat varieties it’s important to understand baking performance under a range of growing conditions, Newkirk said.

“For example there’s a variety that just came out… and there’s some excitement about it because it yielded really well,” he said, adding CIGI staff will soon test flour from the variety in the institute’s bakery.

“We’ve got some of the material and it’s actually gone through the flour mill…. If it does really well in the field, lets hope it does equally well in the bakery.”

Geddes said that type of research helps Canada’s grain industry make strategic decisions.

“Should we be growing this variety in Saskatchewan and Manitoba? Or maybe just in Alberta,” he said.

“That’s the work this (funding) will help us continue. So we can go to the grain companies and say: if you’re buying this variety out of this region you might not want to sell it for bread, you might want to sell it for noodles.”

In addition to wheat variety research, CIGI will use the federal funding to find new uses for barley and pulse crops and develop other innovative products.

“How do you get more products into the marketplace with Western Canadian food barley in it,” Geddes said, noting CIGI will build upon the research of organizations like the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals.

“We’ll show that it works commercially… (do) the commercial applied research.”

Geddes, who has worked for the Canadian Wheat Board, was president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers and led CIGI since 2009, will retire in a few months.

Former Senator JoAnne Buth will become chief executive officer of CIGI in September.

Geddes, though, won’t completely walk away from agriculture.

“I’m sure I’ll be involved in the industry, one way or another.”

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