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Wheat breeding: Public or private?

Some argue private investment will boost yields, but others note that public breeders have done a pretty good job so far

Making wheat a more competitive crop requires public and private breeder co-operation — and getting a return on investment from farmers buying seed.

That was the consensus among panelists discussing wheat breeding at the 3rd Canadian Wheat Symposium in November.

“My observation would be that ultimately farmers are going to be paying for this one way or another,” Garth Patterson, executive director of the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) said.

Farmers will pay if it makes sense, said Henry Van Ankum, a farmer from Almonte, Ont., and a director of the Grain Farmers of Ontario.

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“The way I view it is you have to spend money to make money,” Van Ankum said. “We’ve got to attract investment. Sometimes that investment needs a return…we’re going to have to pay our share of it along the way.”

Declining importance

Wheat is important. It’s the most widely grown and traded crop globally, Patterson said. And it accounts for around eight per cent of Canadian farmers’ cash receipts, or almost $3.8 billion a year, said Rob Graf, a winter wheat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada based in Lethbridge, Alta.

But wheat’s popularity is declining because farmers earn more from other crops.

This year western Canadian farmers harvested 21.9 million acres of wheat — the lowest in five years, Statistics Canada said in its November production report.

Farmers want private investment in wheat like in corn and soybeans, said Jim Anderson, a wheat breeder at the University of Minnesota.

“They are very pro-technology,” he said. “But at the same time they want a very strong public sector. They want an alternative to the companies. The thing that I hear a lot of is, ‘Jim, we don’t want wheat to go the same way as soybean.’”

The same is heard among Canadian canola farmers.

Soybeans are pushing wheat out of rotations, said Marcus Weidler, head of seeds Canada for Bayer CropScience.

“There must be a reason why soybeans are more attractive,” he said.

It’s not just a lack of technology in wheat. Demand for corn and soybeans is growing for demographic and economic reasons, Patterson noted.

Wheat hasn’t been genetically modified to resist herbicides or insect pests. But western Canadian wheat yield gains due to improved varieties, on average, increased 0.7 per cent a year between 1991 and 2012, Graf said. Those gains were “somewhat higher than the global average.”

In 2016, 95 per cent of the Canada Western Red Spring wheat grown in the West were public varieties.

“From the standpoint of yield increases, largely from the public sector, I would say we have done a really good job,” Graf said.

On-farm increases were double that, due to improved agronomy.

“Long-term, stable, well-funded programs have been an effective strategy (due to) WGRF funding,” he said.

Most of it came from farmers through provincial wheat checkoffs.

There are the equivalent of 11 publicly funded wheat breeders in Canada and four with private companies — one breeder for about every two million acres of wheat.

“So I would say there is ample room for the private sector,” Graf said.

“My question would be how long patience lasts in the private sector if there is no product?

Graf bred wheat for Saskatchewan Wheat Pool until it pulled out after several years.

Bayer betting on returns

Weidler didn’t respond directly, but noted that five years ago Bayer decided to invest $1.9 billion into wheat over 10 years.

Bayer is investing $24 million in Canadian wheat development, including its breeding station at Pike Lake, Sask.

Public wheat breeding in Canada is pertinent, Graf said.

“Public-sector cultivars have been very popular and public sector wheat breeding activities are currently vital to the industry. I don’t think anyone could say that we really could do without them.”

Public wheats dominate the U.S. market too, Anderson said.

In Europe, however, it’s the opposite, Weidler said. Public researchers focus on pre-breeding such as developing new breeding techniques and focusing on high-risk, longer-term targets, thereby supporting both the private sector on the breeding side but also supplying farmers with new innovations.

In Germany, major companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and Limagrain are working with the public sector through a body known as proWeizen to develop an efficient hybrid wheat breeding platform.

“It is the largest pre-competitive wheat project ever conducted in Germany,” Weidler said.

Once developed through this model, the private companies will adopt advances and then compete, he said.

Public funding of five million euros is being matched by the companies.

“I think that is one solution to think about — how we can split the work between the private and public sector,” Weidler said.

Wheat breeding in Australia went 100 per cent private after the introduction of end-point royalties paid by farmers, Weidler said. However, public researchers are spending the same amount of money just on pre-breeding as they did 10 years ago on pre-breeding and variety development.

More co-ordination needed?

“I am getting a little bit nervous with how fragmented the situation is here in Canada,” Weidler said later in an interview. “Everybody is trying to do a little bit, but there is very little co-ordination on what needs to be done. So I wonder how long can Canadian wheat be competitive in the global market.”

Wheat agronomy, which has the potential to match yield increases from genetic improvements, also needs more investment, he added.

Farmers will ultimately decide if there’s enough incentive for public and private wheat breeders to continue in Canada, Weidler said.

But it doesn’t matter if the public doesn’t accept the benefits of modern agriculture, Weidler said.

Anderson said private companies are getting more involved in wheat breeding in the U.S., by partnering with universities.

“The growers realize they have a pretty good deal with the public varieties because the seed is cheaper,” he said.

What farmers pay through state wheat checkoffs is probably one-tenth of what they’d pay for wheats developed by private companies, he said.

“So they are getting a good bang for their buck I think.”

Canadian farmers also want low seed costs, but also to attract company investment. It means balancing farmer and corporate interests.

Last year JRG Consulting Group, at the request of provincial wheat and barley commissions and associations, explored five options ranging from the status quo with more co-ordination, to a farmer-owned wheat development company.

The consultants prefer a model that would create a non-profit producer body called Wheat and Barley West.

It allows for economies of scale and a consolidated farmer voice accommodating larger and/or more focused strategic investments in variety development, the report said. It’s less risky for farmers, than starting a farmer-owned seed company. It also puts farmers in position to gear up should the federal government, which currently produces and pays for most new cereal varieties, decides to cut back.

This article was originally published on the Manitoba Co-operator website.

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