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New wheat class promises new opportunities

... Canadian Grain Commission’s (CGC) approval...


March 5, 2008
By Rosalie I. Tennison

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When researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Winnipeg conducted trials over several years to develop high yielding, fusarium resistant wheat, they were hoping to find an option for growers struggling to make a living during a period when wheat prices were low. But despite some promising results, they could not get all the characteristics needed to meet the requirements for Canada’s stringent food wheat registration. Now, with the Canadian Grain Commission’s (CGC) approval of a non-food General Purpose Wheat class, there are opportunities to use that earlier research.

“The change in the registration allows for the registration of non-food quality wheats,” explains Dr. Anita Brûlé-Babel, a cereal breeder with the Department of Plant Science at University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences. “If a variety did not fit into one of the eight food grade ‘boxes’, we could not register it. Now, we can look at non-traditional wheats and what opportunities they offer farmers.”

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Super-high yielding wheat may break yield barriers. Photo By Bruce Barker.

One possible use for high yielding wheat would be in the ethanol industry. High yield wheat could also be useful as a livestock feed. Other possibilities exist as well, depending on whether breeders can achieve the qualities necessary for other special use purposes while still meeting class distinctions. Of particular note, kernel visual distinguishability (KVD) will have to be removed to clear the way for the most promising high yielding varieties to move toward registration. With the CGC removal of KVD in the minor classes, effective in August 2008, the new General Purpose Wheat class will be growing.

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“We have a couple of varieties that are promising and could be registered in February 2008,” reports Dr. Doug Brown, the Winnipeg AAFC breeder who, in collaboration with colleagues, did much of the initial work on high yielding, fusarium resistant wheat. “Because the quality evaluation committee will no longer be interested in testing for food grade quality, two years of co-operative testing should be enough to satisfy the General Purpose requirements.” This means that farmers could be growing some of these new varieties within a couple of years.
Brown says yield trials have been completed already on potential varieties, but because they did not meet the registration requirements, further research was not undertaken. “I have lines that yield 10 percent over the high yielding check, but I also have some that yielded 17 to 20 percent over that check,” he says. “Now that permission has been given to ignore quality and breed solely for yield, the increased yield potential could be higher.”

Despite the promise of the new class, breeding will still have to focus on disease resistance and pest tolerance. Brown says the opportunity exists to consider varieties from other parts of the world to get desirable qualities for the new class.

No opportunity is without its downside and this new wheat class is no different. Brûlé-Babel says shipping costs will continue to be a factor, which often dictates cropping choices. For example, wheat grown in Manitoba that could be shipped to Alberta for feed may cost as much to ship as the profit gained from the improved yield opportunity. Farmers will, in the end, determine if this new class of wheat is worth their while to produce, she says.

Brown agrees, although he adds that growers are always looking for new opportunities to spread their risk. He adds that it is too early to learn if farmers can receive an economic boost by growing wheat for the General Purpose class because there are no varieties registered for them to try. “Would the work needed to produce Canada Western Red Spring wheat outweigh the work needed to produce General Purpose wheat for the same return?” he asks. If the wheat is to be used for feed, despite an increase in the yield, it still has to have the quality requirements of the animals eating it.

Neither breeder sees the ethanol market as the main factor in the development of high yield wheat unless the price encourages growing it. Brûlé-Babel says world wheat stocks will have more of an impact on wheat prices than fuel production needs. As well, using this new class of wheat to breed for uses in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics markets are just not feasible at this time because the markets are so small. “It’s probably not a good idea to use a food grade crop for these purposes anyway,” she adds.

Despite its promise, the value of General Purpose wheat will not be determined for several years. Breeding projects being considered to develop this class and offer varieties for farmers to grow will be worthwhile only if the economic return will appeal to growers. While the registration change does open the door to explore new uses for wheat, those uses still need to be determined and seed has to be made available. Even with the reduced requirements for registration, sufficient stock of seed will not be available for two to three years. A lot can change in two years, including the price of wheat. -end-