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Independent plant breeding and variety developments

Independent plant breeder focusing on addressing gaps in specialty crop breeding including pulses and flax.

September 22, 2023  By Donna Fleury


Agri-Science early-generation plant breeding trials in Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy of J4 Agri-Science Limited.

Plant breeding models vary around the world, with efforts in Canada largely held by public institutions and large private multi-national seed companies. However, independent plant breeders are poised to bring complementary research and crop development to the sector to help farmers access new varieties specific to their needs and to keep new innovation in Canada.

For Jodi Souter, founder of J4 Agri-Science Limited and a farmer, plant breeding has been a passion since her early university days.

“I fell in love with plant breeding during my university agriculture program, which ultimately led me to launch my own independent plant breeding company in Saskatchewan,” she says.

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Souter is also very active on her family’s mixed farm in northeastern Saskatchewan, and being an independent contract CSGA-recognized plant breeder provides the opportunity for her to pursue both of her passions. The typical path in Canada for a plant breeder is to join a public government or university institution where job opportunities are very limited, or large private seed companies.

“I spent about three years as a contract plant breeder, and then decided to start my own independent plant breeding company with the goal of increasing competition in variety development and giving farmers additional choices in what they want to grow,” says Souter.

Souter is also a recent Nuffield Scholar and focused her travel and study on learning more about the progress and limitations surrounding crop development in varying political environments. Her research also looked at opportunities and obstacles to private breeding in Canada and potential opportunities enabled by recent changes to plant breeders’ rights legislation. The Nuffield Canada Scholarship is a rural leadership program available to anyone mid-career who is involved in agriculture in any capacity of primary production, industry, or governance. Annual scholarships are awarded to individuals who are expected to assume positions of greater influence in their field in the future.

“I was interested in looking at other countries around the world that have private lanes for plant breeding, such as Australia, as well as smaller countries,” explains Souter. “They provide a level of competition that we just aren’t utilizing in Canada. I’m not sure if farmers realize how few groups are working on their crops of interest or how many are needed. It often surprises people to find out that sometimes even broad-acre crops only have one or two dedicated breeding programs across the country. I believe that having additional minds on problems and additional work being done on variety development, along with bringing different sources of genetics into the commercial sphere, will be a major benefit. Allowing farmers to compete with their dollars for varieties that are solving their issues will be a good thing, recognizing there are going to be some hurdles along the way. The ultimate goal is to get good varieties into farmers’ hands.”

The plant breeding space is evolving in Canada, including recent changes to plant breeders’ rights legislation and efforts by the federal government toward Seed Regulatory Modernization (SRM). Revisions to Part V of the seeds regulations for plants with novel traits and other changes continue to move forward.

“These advancements are opening opportunities for funding investments into private breeding and new varietal development, something some other countries have been doing for many years,” says Souter. “The level of public funding has been reduced over the years in Canada and in some countries stopped altogether. Revenue-generating models are needed for private breeders to be able to continue to invest in new varieties and grow breeding programs. There is a lot of good data and research available that shows the effects of royalties actually spurring on new and outside investment. The return on investment from plant breeding is actually very high for farmers, even though it takes a few years to see the return. It is a good place to invest, a good opportunity to attract investment and spur innovation in Canada, with a win for farmers as well.”

The objectives of J4 Agri-Science’s independent breeding program are the development and commercialization of high-performing pulse and specialty crop varieties, including lentils, faba beans, flax and sunflower. J4 Agri-Science has an office in Saskatoon, with the main testing site in northeastern Saskatchewan, and other selection and testing sites across the Prairies. Among various specialty crop projects, Souter is currently collaborating with the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers to develop agronomic traits in lentils not yet available in Canada, and the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission on improved agronomic traits. Through J4 Agri-Science, Souter has successfully set up breeding platforms that are speeding up the time it takes to get to field testing. The goal is not to decrease the quality of the testing but to start testing in a year or two instead of maybe six years for other programs.

“Being a farmer myself, the objectives of our breeding programs are from a farmer’s perspective and what we would want as farmers growing those varieties,” explains Souter. “We have a few different objectives for lentils that we are making selections and testing for. We expect to be able to share more specific details on our lentil varietal developments in the next two to three years. For flax, the objectives are a bit further ahead, with one priority on developing shorter lines with different architecture and less fibre that could improve harvest issues for farmers. We are also working on other flax agronomic projects that aren’t harvest-specific.

“Changing the way we think about plant breeding and developing and supporting a lane for private plant breeding in Canada to complement existing efforts will be a good thing for agriculture in the future. The ultimate goal is to provide better crop variety solutions for Canadian farmers and to foster new innovation.” 

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