The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted decision makers at the federal agriculture department to scale back sensitive research and suspend non-critical research in laboratories and greenhouses.
In an email, Agriculture Canada media relations officer James Watson said Ottawa has scaled back research operations to critical time-sensitive services and has suspended research that requires physical presence in government labs and greenhouses.
However, Agriculture Canada is planning for a limited resumption of field research activities that will respect regional health and safety requirements, Watson added.
The federal department has yet to state definitively whether Agriculture Canada researchers will be allowed to participate in this year’s co-op trial program, which assesses promising new lines of wheat, barley, oats, pulses and other field crops.
The entry of Agriculture Canada crop lines in the co-op trials is typically required before any new crop lines are recommended for commercial registration in Western Canada by the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC).
Withdrawal from that program in 2020 would likely delay the registration of any new Agriculture Canada seed varieties for as much as a year and would also delay work on Agriculture Canada plant breeding activities at off-season nurseries in the southern hemisphere.
Watson said the department is monitoring the situation and is “committed to continue working with its partners and stakeholders as we explore how and when we can initiate further science activities. We will continue to adapt as the situation evolves.”
In late April, producer groups that provide financial support to Agriculture Canada’s varietal development programs urged Ottawa to provide clarity on the status of important research projects and to continue important wheat and barley research activities at research stations across Western Canada.
In a late April news release, the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition (CWRC) and the Canadian Barley Research Coalition (CBRC) said, “urgent action is required to save the 2020 (Agriculture Canada’s) field, lab, and greenhouse activities for wheat and barley research projects.”
Agriculture Canada’s May 1 email suggests that the federal agriculture department has not ruled out the possibility of participating in the 2020 co-op trial program.
However, industry groups that provide research funding to Agriculture Canada say it is still unclear whether the department will participate fully in this year’s co-op trial program, or whether involvement will be scaled back or suspended completely.
“The impact of disruptions to this work needs to be considered on a project-to-project and program-to-program basis to minimize the loss of both future productivity and the potential contributions of previous projects,” the CWRC said.
“We are facing an unprecedented situation with respect to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of researchers and other staff is our top priority,” said CWRC chair Jason Lenz.
“The universities and private plant breeders have found safe options to conduct their research. We’re confident (Agriculture Canada) can also create a plan to continue critical research and provide clarity to western Canadian farmers.”