Ag Canada leaves co-op trial system in limbo

It’s still not known if the federal department will participate in research projects this summer because of COVID-19 


Producer groups that provide financial support to Agriculture Canada plant breeders and varietal development programs are urging Ottawa to continue important wheat and barley research activities at Agriculture Canada research stations across Western Canada this year.

In an April 22 news release, the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition (CWRC) and the Canadian Barley Research Coalition (CBRC) said, “urgent action is required to save the 2020 (Ag Canada) field, lab, and greenhouse activities for wheat and barley research projects.”

Those activities include Ag Canada’s participation in the co-op trial system, which assesses the performance of promising lines of wheat, barley and other crop types at various locations across Western Canada.

Last week, the wheat and barley coalitions that fund Agriculture Canada research heard that Ottawa had not yet committed to participating in the co-op trial program in 2020, citing concerns over COVID-19.

Jason Lenz, an Alberta grain grower and current chair of the wheat coalition, said Agriculture Canada officials would not commit to participating in this year’s trials and gave no indication of when they would make a decision.

“It’s becoming a very urgent situation just based on the timing of the growing season,” said Lenz in an April 23 interview.

The CWRC is a collaboration of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, the Alberta Wheat Commission, and Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association.

On behalf of the prairie wheat commissions, it distributes research money that’s collected through producer levies or checkoffs in Canada’s three prairie provinces.

Many projects supported by the CWRC are multi-year, multi-site projects that involve other researchers and outside co-operators.

Lenz said the CWRC is “very concerned about the lack of a sense of urgency being shown by Agriculture Canada to date….”

The CWRC is aware of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect that the virus can have on human health, Lenz said.

But CWRC board members are frustrated over the agriculture ministry’s reluctance to make adjustments to workplace safety protocols that would allow varietal trials to take place safely.

The CWRC sees the co-op trial system as a critically important component to varietal development work.

Lenz said other breeding institutions that take part in the co-op trial program have already made adjustments to their workplace safety protocols to ensure that participation in the trials will continue.

Plant breeding programs at the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Alberta and the University of Manitoba have all adjusted their workplace safety protocols to ensure that workers are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic and that research work can proceed.

Alberta’s Field Crop Development Centre is also planning to continue its plant breeding and trialing activities, Lenz said.

Sources in the ag research community said last week that other Agriculture Canada research projects have also been suspended indefinitely.

Federal research activities across the country have been “scaled down” to focus on critical services, such as care of livestock, maintenance of genetic material and upkeep of specialized lab functions, one source told The Western Producer.

Officials at Agriculture Canada’s seed technology branch were not available for comment April 24.

Jason Skotheim, a barley producer from Spruce Home, Sask., said Agriculture Canada has been a key participant in the co-op trial program for years.

“It would be a significant blow to those co-op trials if (Ag Canada) were not involved,” said Skotheim, chair of the CBRC.

“They’re really putting in jeopardy a lot of important research that we feel could be done safely and efficiently,” he added.

With planting season just around the corner and a great deal of trial site co-ordination work yet to be taken care of, Agriculture Canada needs to let its research workers know immediately whether Agriculture Canada is participating in this year’s program, Skotheim said.

“We don’t want people to be taking unnecessary health risks but we think there’s a way you can get this work done safely,” he said.

“The other organizations are able to find a way to do this, so we think AAFC should at least be allowing their researchers to work within a set of guidelines that keeps them safe, doesn’t expose them to any unnecessary risks but still allows them to get the work done.”

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