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Western Canadian cereal breeding continues

The Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan is recognized nationally and internationally for basic and applied crop research and development and successful field crop breeding.
Photo courtesy of Gloria Gingera, University of Saskatchewan.

Plant breeding tools, techniques and technologies have changed over time, but the real advancement in plant breeding has been in efficiencies.

According to Dr. Brian Rossnagel, professor emeritus, and barley and oat breeder, Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan, we’ve had major changes in several technologies that affected plant-breeding efficiency in Western Canada and around the world over the past 30 years.

“Although GMOs have received a lot of attention during the past 15 years, they are just one of the tools in the plant breeding toolbox,” says Rossnagel.

Looking back, one of the simple but very important changes was the development of and improvements in small plot equipment. “When I first started at the University, we did almost everything by hand,” says Rossnagel. “We and others developed and shared a lot of small plot equipment, in particular seeders and combines, that changed the size and scope of programs, and the volumes of materials that could be produced and evaluated compared to our predecessors.”

Quality screening tools, chemical screening kits, Near Infrared Technology (NIR) and other tools has helped improve screening capabilities. For example, testing for diseases such as fusarium is very costly, and NIR screening can reduce the number of samples requiring the more expensive chemical testing component.

“The development of micro-malting equipment by Australian scientists really helped us move forward with screening malting barley for quality,” explains Rossnagel. “Micro-malters allow us to produce actual malt samples from a huge number of barley breeding lines to better screen for enzyme activity and other malting quality parameters.”

Computers, which have changed the way everything is done, have had a big impact on what plant breeders can do. “Before computers, it was difficult to effectively handle all the data in a timely manner to be able to put materials back in the field,” says Rossnagel. “Computer data analysis has allowed us to implement better statistical evaluation of the data so we reduce errors and increase efficiency.”

Rossnagel adds that plant breeding is biology, not physics or chemistry, and there is variance in everything. To make research results meaningful requires many trials across several locations and over a number of years, greatly increasing the amount of data that needs to be analyzed.

Computers have also changed communication and the ability to expand networks and collaborate with other plant breeders around the world. Rossnagel notes that he has worked closely with scientists in Australia and other countries for the last 25 years, and with computers and e-mail he can now be in touch more quickly and conveniently than ever before.

Molecular biology, which includes genetic modification, marker-assisted selection, genomics and other related techniques, has made a difference in terms of improving efficiency. “We can handle more numbers and have another tool to allow us to screen more efficiently without even having to plant the material in the field in some cases,” explains Rossnagel. “As an example, the CDC oat breeding program uses genetic markers to screen for certain crown rust resistance genes in the lab and then sends only the most promising ones to our collaborator rust nursery in Ontario to confirm resistance.”

Rossnagel adds that it is important to keep these tools in perspective. GMOs have made significant contributions, but they are just another tool that is very expensive and not always the answer to everything. Some advancements, like corn yields, were primarily due to plant genetics and changes to plant architecture to increase plant populations and yield, not biotech. However, biotech and herbicide tolerance has improved the ability to expand corn acres further north by allowing early planting with better early-season weed control.

Improved infrastructure and funding have also helped move plant breeding efforts forward. At the University of Saskatchewan, the Phytotron, a controlled environment plant growth facility, enables three full cycles of crop production in one year. Off-site winter nurseries have also helped increase efficiencies, allowing plant breeders to grow two generations in one year, one in Canada and a second in New Zealand, Arizona, Chile or wherever the most efficient location is.

“We sometimes get asked the question of why it takes so long to develop a new variety in Canada,” says Rossnagel. “The more important question is how long does it take elsewhere, what is the baseline? People need to remember that plants can only grow so much in a certain length of time. There is the impression that molecular technologies could speed things up even more, but that isn’t completely true.

Rossnagel adds that an ongoing breeding program is like a factory with crosses going in at the front and varieties coming out the back, and when you make a change and speed it up that “speeding up” only happens once. “Plant breeders and farmers are still faced with the growing conditions on the Prairies, which globally are some of the toughest for crop production. The growing season is short and growers still have to fit their crop production into that window, often with limited moisture, that genetics alone cannot change.”

Over the years, funding from various sources for plant breeding has improved via farmer investment from commodity organizations, the Western Grains Research Foundation and private industry investments. Although public funding has not improved overall, Rossnagel notes that through his career the core funding for the CDC from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture has been critical and continues to be available.

“The funding model we have has worked well and we have had lots of productivity coming out of it,” explains Rossnagel. “Investment by private industry, especially from end-user partners such as Quaker Oats or Sapporo Breweries and Prairie Malt Ltd. and others has been invaluable.”

The investments have increased because of the value the industry gets and the collaboration it creates between government, industry, growers, end users and, in Rossnagel’s case, the University in the middle. “Working with everyone across the supply chain, including end users, means we are developing varieties that farmers have a ready market for rather than just high-yielding varieties that may not be suited for end markets.”

Future opportunities and challenges
Although communications have improved over the years, looking forward Rossnagel also sees a challenge in how communications are managed. “There are examples from private and public programs around the world where information and media about the benefits of new varieties have had a ‘spin’ put on results,” says Rossnagel. “It is important to look at how research results are spun, and farmers should make sure to have clear glasses on when they receive information.”

Ask questions about the metrics used, what are the results compared to (i.e., what’s the baseline) and ask to see the empirical data backing up the claims. Contact third parties who don’t have a competitive interest in that new variety, and talk with others who have proper expertise such as those at universities or provincial agriculture departments.

“The current hype around cereal hybrids is an example where there is no significant advantage to growers in Western Canada, but is being talked about again,” says Rossnagel. “People worked with hybrid cereals in the ’60s, but the technology was discarded by the public and private system because there wasn’t enough advantage as heterosis or hybrid vigour is too low in cereals compared to corn or canola to justify the development and seed production costs. There is nothing wrong with hybrids, however for cereals current drivers are about the return for seed developers – not the farmer – and I don’t think it is a good way to make future improvements to cereals.”

Seed production for hybrids is very expensive. For a crop such as canola it is much more effective because of the small seed size. For a larger seeded crop such as wheat or barley it is tricky as you would need upwards of one million acres of seed production alone to turn all the commercial wheat into hybrids, not to mention seed transport logistics and other considerations.

Rossnagel is proud of the past and current cereal plant breeding efforts in Western Canada from both public and private breeding groups. Despite the spin that some would like to use, the production gains in cereals have been much the same as for canola over the past 20 years.

“We know there needs to be more investment in plant breeding, but what is the best strategy moving forward? I believe farmers need to really look at trying to put their fair share of investment into this activity and have a fair share of control; if they don’t they won’t have any,” he says. “For crops like canola, farmers are paying a significant portion to technology developers every year in upfront royalties. Although this model may work for canola, I don’t think it’s the best answer for cereals.”

Rossnagel believes that some of the biggest challenges facing farmers and industry looking forward are determining who pays, who is in control, who is working for whom, and who benefits from plant breeding.

“One option may be the End Point Royalty system the Australians have in place, which is worth looking at and needs to be seriously considered,” he says. “It is very fair, everybody who benefits pays, and fortunately because of that everyone will pay less. The breeder gets rewarded when the variety produced gets sold as commercial product, so if a farmer has a bad year and doesn’t have a crop to sell, there are no fees. The End Point Royalty system is the fairest and allows for on-farm seed use and farm-to-farm trade. This may be one of the options going forward that will be a good strategy for cereal plant breeding in the future.”