Sometime in the next year or two, University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre pulse breeder Bert Vandenberg expects the sector will quietly cross a very important milestone.
In the early days people like him set themselves a lofty goal of capturing a significant number of acres with soil-building, protein-rich legume crops like field peas and lentils.
Two things drove that early interest. They recognized that growers needed more cropping options, and that if pulse crops were that option, there were a number of agronomic and environmental benefits ripe for the taking.
The number they settled on was 20 per cent of the cropland in Saskatchewan. If everything lined up they thought that goal was lofty but attainable.
“I think we could potentially get there next year,” Vandenberg said. “That would be about eight million acres of production in Saskatchewan, and I think it is possible we could see five million acres of lentils and three million acres of peas — that leaves three or four other crops like chickpeas, fababeans and dry beans to contribute a bit more and we could be there.”
It’s a long way to come for a sector that didn’t really get rolling until well into the 1980s, and in no small part this advancement has been built on the work of breeders like Vandenberg and his former mentor and colleague Al Slinkard, who was the first plant breeder in Western Canada to tackle pulse crops.
Their work was built on an innovative but now long-standing funding model that saw significant producer checkoff dollars invested by the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers’ Association channelled to varietal development at the Crop Development Centre.
Without that model, it’s an open question just how much work would have been done in this area over the years. Pulses are a small crop in any context — the FAO says about 11 million tonnes of peas were produced worldwide in 2013, with about 2.3 million in Canada. Lentils are an even smaller crop, with just under five million tonnes worldwide of which 1.9 were in Canada. Those figures compare to 715 million tonnes of world wheat production.
Research funding challenges
Given such a low acreage spread across so many countries, few commercial interests are willing to invest in pulse research. At times, it’s also been tough to attract public research, says one of the earliest Sask-atchewan pulse crop breeders.
When professor emeritus, Al Slinkard, first started working on pulse breeding in the early 1970s at the University of Saskatchewan, funding was pretty much impossible to come by.
The crops had barely even achieved oddity status, with a couple of small pockets of pea production in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and somewhere between 500 and 1,000 acres of lentils grown across the entire Prairies.
That meant getting money out of funding agencies was a hard sell, with many viewing investments in already established crops as a better bet, Slinkard recalls.
“As someone said to me, ‘We could get a two per cent increase in wheat production and that would totally eclipse anything you could possibly accomplish,’” Slinkard says.
Even so, there were still some compelling reasons to pursue the project. In the early days the crops offered growers an alternative to wheat, which simply wasn’t moving due to a global wheat glut. Pulse crops also filled a production hole, Slinkard says.
“They’re protein crops, and they already had an oilseed in canola, and a starch crop in wheat, so pulse crops like peas and lentils were viewed as filling this gap,” Slinkard says.
It was for this reason he eventually got his first funding for pulse research from the Canadian Grains Council in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t a lot, but it gave him a foundation to work from.
“It let me hire a technician and get a used pickup truck to do plot work, and to get access to a plot seeder and plot combine,” Slinkard says.
Initially he began working from the pea genetic materials available through the USDA’s Pullman, Washington, research facility. At the same time he also requested the available genetic material for lentils, since the two crops were typically grown in similar locations. He wanted to work on lentils because peas already had some public and commercial support but no one else was working on lentils yet.
He grew out 10 lentil plots his first year. Two died in short order, leaving eight potentials. Of those only two were high yielding, making his selections for the next season reasonably straightforward. Over the next several years he continued to refine his selections and ultimately produced two green lentil varieties he considered ready for release — one large seeded and one small seeded.
“I was asked what should be released first and I decided, based on my little bit of experience with the business, that buyers seemed to like large seeds, so that’s what we picked,” Slinkard says. “It was released the following year, 1978, as Laird. Then in 1980 we released the small-seeded variety, and that was Eston. And that was the start of the pulse industry here.”
The unique model that has been in place for quite some time has seen the SPGA provide the U of S’s crop development centre with “quite significant funding” for pulse breeding, in exchange for the commercialization rights for varieties out of that program, says SPGA executive director Carl Potts.
“Our objective has been to work directly with plant breeders on the most important factors limiting pulse production in Saskatchewan,” Potts says.
That has included obvious targets like disease-resistant varieties and agronomic traits, including plant structure that results in a taller canopy.
Lentil and field pea growers, for example, have found that a series of wetter years has meant a spike in root diseases such as aphanomyces, which has become a breeding target. Other pulse crops like fababeans and chickpeas tolerate wetter conditions a bit better and haven’t fallen prey to this disease in the same way, but have their own unique challenges, Potts said.
“For those two crops, a big challenge is to expand the adapted area where they can be produced,” he says. “Chickpeas, for example, do very well in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, but don’t perform particularly well outside of that area.”
Weed control is also a major issue for most pulse crops, Potts says. None of these crops tends to be strongly competitive with weeds and can struggle to overcome weed flushes in the field.
“They’re just not great competitors, lentils in particular,” Potts says. “There are herbicide-tolerant options — Clearfield lentils have been very successful, but we would like to see alternative and additional options, because we’re concerned about herbicide-tolerant weeds.”
Potts agrees that in many ways the pulse industry has always punched above its weight in varietal development.
“The industry is actually quite small, in global terms,” Potts says. “When you compare it to wheat, corn or soybeans, for example, they’re much smaller acreage.”
Changes due to UPOV?
Small acreage makes a crop unattractive for commercial plant breeders. Potts says visionary growers and researchers realized that would be an issue and set up the industry’s unique model, directly funding research — very necessary research when you consider where the crops were coming from and how different those climates were.
“These crops were coming out of the Middle East and South Asia,” Potts says. “The varieties that were generated there didn’t travel well and didn’t produce well here.”
Meanwhile, what’s less clear, Vandenberg says, is exactly what the future model of pulse crop development might be. In many ways the existing system was a response to Canada’s failure to sign on to the original plant breeders’ rights treaty, UPOV, which had been in development since the 1960s and had been the law in other jurisdictions since the 1991 treaty.
“We always joked that what we were trying to do with this system was UPOV-lite,” Vandenberg says. “It really accomplished the same thing, it just gave the money to the breeders at the front end, not the back end as royalties.”
Since Canada signed on to the treaty last year, the need for the current system might not be as strong, and it may even have some disadvantages over the new model. For example, the current system depends on the continued support of grower organizations, rather than reflecting the breeder’s ability to deliver results that capture acres, Vandenberg says.
“You might also see a situation where a grower group, for whatever reason, doesn’t put out requests for research proposals for three years,” Vandenberg says. “These breeding programs require a constant flow of dollars to deliver results.”
He also points out that it prevented breeders from taking calculated gambles based on their understanding of the sector, to breed for emerging issues or opportunities. For example, he’s been breeding fababeans quietly for years, piggybacking on existing infrastructure, something that might not have garnered a lot of financial support if he’d had to seek it.
“If I’d have told someone 10 years ago I wanted to breed fababeans, they’d have thought I was crazy,” Vandenberg says.
Whether the model moves to reflect the changing times isn’t a foregone conclusion, and Vandenberg stresses that he is only giving his personal opinion and isn’t speaking for the university or any of his colleagues, but he adds that UPOV is a significant change, and one that gives breeders like him a lot more control over their fates.
Says Vandenberg: “It feels great to have rights — it’s like I’m finally a citizen.”
This article was originally published as, “Achieving the ‘im-pulse-able’,” in the February 2, 2016 issue of Country Guide