For decades, it was “What you see is what you get” when buying Canadian wheat. Not only did new varieties have to perform well in the field and in the bakery, they had to look similar to all the other varieties in their class.
That helped ensure the consistency which has been such a strong selling feature for Canadian wheat, but there was a downside. New varieties could perform well, but couldn’t be registered if they couldn’t be visually distinguished from other classes.
The policy was controversial for decades. Proponents called it a keystone of Canada’s wheat quality brand. Critics called it a needless barrier to registration of otherwise desirable varieties. In 2008, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz sided with the critics and discontinued the requirement for kernel visual distinguishability (KVD) for registering new varieties. It was replaced with a system of grower variety declarations and sampling.
Legendary Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada wheat breeder Ron DePauw, now retired and acting as SeCan’s science adviser, says the change removed a barrier for wheat breeders. This was important because wheat breeding is already a tough numbers game. Wheat is a hexaploid plant, meaning it has six sets of chromosomes on which to draw, making for seemingly endless variations. Throw kernel appearance into that mix and it was a bridge too far, DePauw says.
“What KVD did was eliminate between five and 10 per cent of your crosses due to not having the right appearance and kernel shape,” DePauw explains. “That represented an expense and lost opportunities.”
Since being freed from those constraints, breeders have definitely taken advantage, DePauw says. You’ll hear few complaints about the demise of KVD emanating from Canada’s wheat breeding programs, yet the move hasn’t actually translated into significant yield gains in the field.
“The breeding cycle for wheat varieties is eight to 10 years, so you won’t see any direct effects from this until 2016 to 2018 or something like that,” DePauw says.
Big change in 2018
The effect on the overall system so far is similar to steering a large ocean ship — it takes a while to respond to a command from the wheelhouse. In the same way, there can be a long lag before the effects of regulatory changes are felt, says one grain quality specialist.
Daryl Beswitherick, the Canadian Grain Commission’s program manager of quality assurance, says most of the wheat classes still more or less conform to KVD, despite the passing of nearly a decade.
“A trained inspector still can, for the most part, distinguish the wheat classes today,” Beswitherick says. “It’s really held together for a long time after the regulatory change.”
On August 1, 2018, that’s all going to change dramatically. That’s the date new regulations are proposed to come into effect creating two new wheat classes — Canadian Northern Hard Red (CNHR) and Canadian Western Special Purpose (CWSP).
The milling quality standards for CNHR mean that it will include about 30 varieties currently in the CWRS and CPRS classes, giving breeders another wheat class to target their breeding efforts toward.
CWSP will essentially replace the current Canada Western General Purpose wheat class. It will include varieties that don’t fit within the parameters of any of the other western wheat classes, and will likely be the home of varieties destined for feed and ethanol use, and perhaps even for specialized niche markets. There will be no quality parameters for the class.
It might sound like a simple administrative matter, but in reality it’s going to be a leap forward in the wheat class modernization effort that the Canadian Grain Commission has long been championing — and a stake through the heart of KVD. For the first time, large numbers of varieties are being moved from class to class, dramatically and decisively ending the era of inspectors being able to tell the class from the kernel’s physical appearance.
“This really will be a significant change, the one that will make it much more difficult to visually tell the difference between classes,” Beswitherick says.
That’s no cause for worry, however, as the framework for the new system has several years behind it, and has built up an admirable track record of assuring quality for end-use customers, he says. Growers have been signing variety declarations since 2008, and there’s been no flood of customer complaints or chronic problems.
“I’m not saying it’s a perfect system and it never happens — but there certainly hasn’t been a flood of problems,” Beswitherick says. “There are tolerances, and I think some blending even happens.”
Following industry consultations, the implementation date was pushed back a year from the original August 1, 2017, to ensure enough time for the value chain to prepare for the changes.
“It would be fair to say that right now the grain handlers are thinking very hard about how they can ensure segregation within the supply chain,” Beswitherick says, adding he is confident they’ll come up with workable solutions to the challenge.
From a farmer perspective, little should change — there will still be variety declarations to sign — so the lone issue they’ll need to be aware of is that some varieties will now be in new classes.
“There’s a bit of education that needs to happen there, but from their perspective it will really be a minor change,” Beswitherick says. He also stresses that growers won’t lose any varieties. They’ll just be delivered as different classes.
“I think there’s a bit of misinformation out there about that point,” he says. “They won’t be forced to change varieties. They’ll still be able to grow the wheat varieties that suit their farms and deliver them.”
On the breeding side of the equation, DePauw said he expects the incremental advances from this policy change to begin showing up shortly, adding to the already rising yield gains. It will, in essence, build on the growth that began in the 1990s with improved funding for varietal development through the Western Grains Research Foundation, he says.
“We’ve seen productivity gains roughly double since then, and I expect this will only add to that trend.”
On the other hand, the changes will mean tighter specifications, especially on gluten strength, and therefore many “near misses” for CWRS, DePauw says. “Therefore these regulatory changes will adversely affect CWRS for sure and possibly CPS.”
For more information on the wheat class changes, visit the Grain Commission website at grainscanada.gc.ca.
This article was originally published as, “Can’t tell by looking” in the March 1, 2016, issue of Country Guide