The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted federal agriculture officials to scale back research activities and suspend non-critical research in laboratories and greenhouses.
In an email to The Western Producer, Agriculture Canada media relations officer James Watson confirmed that Ottawa is limiting research to critical, time-sensitive services and has suspended research that requires physical presence in government labs and greenhouses.
However, the department plans to partially resume field research using practices that will respect regional health and safety requirements, Watson added. That suggests Ottawa may still allow its researchers and plant breeders to conduct some field activities, following amended work safety protocols.
The federal department has yet to definitively state whether Agriculture Canada researchers will be allowed to participate in this year’s co-op trial program that assesses the performance of promising new lines of wheat, barley, oats, pulses and other field crops.
Withdrawal from that program would likely delay the registration of any new Agriculture Canada seed varieties for as much as a year and could cost the Canadian agriculture sector hundreds of millions of dollars in lost or delayed genetic enhancements.
Former Agriculture Canada wheat breeder Ron DePauw said May 2 the situation remains “uncertain.”
“Some people think there will be planting of certain materials, and some people are more pessimistic. So, it seems like there isn’t a clear development of plans — how to work with social distancing for example, and get something out into the field,” he said.
DePauw suggested that Ag Canada participation in this year’s co-op trials would require new workplace safety plans to be drafted and approved by Ottawa on short notice, a task that could be accomplished with input from federal researchers.
“I suspect there are things being done, but because it’s such a fluid situation, nobody could really stick their neck out as far as what’s going on,” he said.
If Ag Canada does not participate in this year’s co-op trials, new crop lines in the system could still be recommended for registration by the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC). But those recommendations would require the PGDC to deviate from its normal procedures and make variety registration recommendations with less than the usual amount of agronomic, disease and quality data.
DePauw said the costs associated with a one-year suspension in Ag Canada field activities could mean a reduction in genetic enhancements in new crop varieties.
That would represent a significant cost to Canadian ag sector, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
Genetic gain in new cultivars would be reduced if a year of field activity — including rigorous selection of new plant lines — is missed.
“This is the incremental value of genetic gain,” DePauw said.
“If you lose a full year, there is a cost to the sector.”