New wheat varieties could target organic production

Research results have also determined soybean varieties bred under organic management will perform better under such farming methods

Efforts by Canadian scientists to breed wheat specifically for use in organic farming could potentially benefit conventional agriculture by leading to varieties that require fewer chemicals, said an expert.

Similar research could also improve conventional farming of crops such as soybeans, said Andrew Hammermeister, director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Chemicals are a significant expense for conventional farmers.

Hammermeister spoke at the recent Organic Connections conference, which was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organic farming for wheat involves different soil biology and levels of competition than farming using chemicals, as well as different timing and availability of soil nutrients, he said.

Related story in this issue: Organic farming called blend of old and new

Lines of wheat bred to fit organic farming could not only help support other low-input production systems, their genetics could potentially be transferred into conventional agriculture, “so we’re not just serving our interest, we’re creating genetic diversity through this,” he said.

Although the research is new, the results indicate soybeans bred under organic management will perform better under such farming, Hammermeister said in an e-mail.

Such performance “could be possible for other crops also, especially for crops where high levels of inputs are being used,” he said. “However, crops that are naturally productive with low input requirements may not be as responsive.”

Canadian scientists are conducting the research as part of the national Organic Science Cluster program, which started in 2009. The program is in its third cluster, which involves five research themes ranging from field crops and horticulture to pest management, livestock, and environment.

Work is being conducted by more than 70 researchers at more than 36 institutions, including universities and Agriculture Canada research centres, he said.

“We actually have 27 different research activities that are happening at institutions right across Canada in all of these five themes, so a lot of working is going on,” said Hammermeister, who is also an associate professor in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Agriculture.

Before research could proceed on organic wheat, scientists had to convince federal officials that organic farmers couldn’t simply use existing lines developed for conventional agriculture, he said. Researchers proved there was a significant difference in the performance of wheat specifically bred for organic farming.

Although researchers can come up with things such as wheat intended for organic farming, producers play a key role in determining the success of such efforts, said Hammermeister.

“Now, if we want to have organic wheat breeding, we have to have farmers using the cultivars that are produced, and wheat breeders and seed companies are not interested in investing a lot of time and money in producing seeds that farmers aren’t buying, so I strongly encourage you to at least try these cultivars out and make sure and see if they fit into your operation,” he said.

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