Keeping Up with Alfalfa Advances

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(Photo courtesy Annie Claessens)

Whether it’s new conventional varieties with better winter hardiness and disease resistance, there’s a lot happening in the alfalfa seed market. Here’s a snapshot of the latest advances and what’s coming down the pipe.

 

In the world of forage seed, alfalfa is getting a lot of press these days, due in part to a GE variety that has sparked renewed interest in the world of alfalfa seed.

Even before the U.S.-based Forage Genetics International (FGI) began selling its HarvXtra alfalfa seed with Roundup Ready technology to farmers in Eastern Canada in 2016, the alfalfa industry was split on the issue of whether doing so was a good idea.

On one side, alfalfa seed producers in the West feared contamination risk they said could pose a danger to alfalfa seed exports. In the East, growers wanted the ability to grow herbicide tolerant alfalfa for livestock feed.

In the end, FGI decided to go ahead and launch the product in the East for hay production only. It’s currently not being sold in Western Canada. Despite the controversy, the issue served to put alfalfa back in the spotlight.

“It’s what often gets lost when people talk about alfalfa — the conventional side and some of the strides being made there,” says Erick Lutterotti, general manager of Gold Medal Seeds in Brooks, Alta., (a subsidiary of FGI) and vice-chair of the Canadian Seed Trade Association’s Forage and Turf Committee.

Winter Hardiness

Especially exciting for Lutterotti are new varieties of multifoliate alfalfa that have been bred to be very winter hardy.

“That’s the big thing in conventional alfalfa.”

Winter hardiness is determined by an alfalfa variety’s ability to withstand cold temperatures. The lower the rating for winter hardiness, the greater the ability of the plant to survive the winter months. Winter hardiness ratings indicate the potential longevity of the alfalfa stand.

Lutterotti notes that although fall dormancy is related to winter hardiness, the latter is separate from fall dormancy. In recent years, breeders have been successful at separating winter hardiness from fall dormancy.

“In the past, multifoliate alfalfas came with a 4 or 5 fall dormancy rating, meaning it wakes up early and goes to bed late. For people south of Lethbridge, you’d get three or four cuts per year, maybe a fourth,” Lutterotti says.

“Inherently, creeping-rooted alfalfa was the most winter hardy there was, but those varieties were best suited for lower-yielding two-cut systems. Now we have a very high-quality alfalfa — dairy quality — that’s still at that 4 fall dormancy rating, but you have a winter hardiness below 2, which is as a good or better than any creeper on the market. This gives you lots of options as to your farming system, and it can be used in many different regions.”

Regional differences are the key to knowing what alfalfa variety is best for Western Canada, Lutterotti adds. If the alfalfa crop is meant for short-term growth, moderate winter hardiness is usually adequate. For long-term stands, a lower winter hardiness rating is often a good idea, but it can depend on a couple factors, he notes.

“In regions with more snow, a lower winter hardiness rating may not provide much additional protection, but you never know. You don’t want the grower to just assume that they’re going to get a lot of snow cover next winter. You might not get as much snow in a given year, so it might be a good idea to go with an alfalfa that can withstand exposure to the cold better.”

He recommends retailers work with their customers to determine the variety that is the best fit for their specific situation. Popular varieties include Compass, with ultra-winter hardiness and fast regrowth.

GE alfalfa isn’t the only product FGI is working on. It’s also making strides with conventional alfalfa, an example being an attempt to offer stronger resistance to Anthracnose stem rot.

Anthracnose of alfalfa is caused by Colletotrichum trifolii. This fungus can attack leaves, but most characteristically attacks stems and crowns. While resistance has been built in to many varieties of alfalfa on the market, Peterson notes it’s beginning to break down in some lines. The disease is rare in Western Canada, but is more prevalent in the eastern United States and Eastern Canada.

“Even with Aphanomyces root rot, which has been around for over 20 years, the industry is finding there’s still a lot to be gained by breeding new varieties resistant to additional races of this important disease,” says Mike Peterson, global traits lead for FGI.

Improving Yield, Persistence and Quality

The advances in alfalfa products like high-quality winter hardy varieties are due in part to the hard work of people like Annie Claessens, forage breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Quebec Research and Development Centre.

Claessens is part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers constantly working to improve the forage crop on a number of fronts.

Annie Claessens

Like breeders of most other crops, alfalfa breeders are working to boost yields. The key to doing so is lowering the dormancy, but doing so can have unwanted effects on alfalfa persistence. It’s an interesting conundrum that Claessens and her team are challenged with.

“We’re trying to help growers extend the alfalfa growing season from late summer through to early winter, so we want less dormant cultivars. However, when they’re less dormant, they generally have lower winter survival.”

Some significant gains have been made in recent years, like the kind Lutterotti refers to, where winter hardiness has been improved while keeping fall dormancy the same. But there’s a ways to go, Claessens notes.

“Those two traits can be improved simultaneously. We’ve developed an indoor selection method to decrease dormancy but increase freezing tolerance, which is one of the most important factors in lowering winter survival under our climatic conditions.”

Breeding for better freezing tolerance involves creating plants with perennial organs (crown and roots) that are able to withstand freezing temperatures. She reports that they have been able to increase the freezing tolerance of alfalfa by 5 C.

Claessens and her colleagues are also working at disease resistance, which is the second-most important factor lowering winter survival. Breeding efforts are focusing on Phytophthora root rot and Aphanomyces root rot, thereby helping alfalfa to be less affected by cold and wet soil conditions.

Phytophthora root rot, caused by a fungus-like pathogen, is believed to survive for many years in the soil, and may attack alfalfa after long rotations to other crops. Aphanomyces root root, caused by a pathogen very similar to Phytophthora, attacks both seedlings and adult alfalfa plants and can dramatically reduce yield and vigour of established stands.

“We’ve developed an indoor selection method to identify which plants are highly and moderately resistant to those diseases. We can select plants with greater resistance and breed them to rapidly develop lines that are better able to resist those pests.”

Boosting quality also remains the mission of alfalfa breeders like Claessens.

“Our goal is to have cows produce more milk from the alfalfa they consume, either by increasing alfalfa’s digestibility or energy content so the microorganisms in their stomach can have more energy to process the protein,” she says. “By increasing the energy content, we can increase milk production from forages, increase protein content of the milk, and reduce nitrogen loss in the environment at the same time.”

Exciting new alfalfa varieties don’t just appear overnight, though. Claessens notes that breeding programs are expensive, and new sources of germplasm and funding are always being sought. It can take many years for a new alfalfa variety to hit the market.

SGS Purchase of BioVision a ‘Next-Level’ Move

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A Canadian seed testing company’s purchase by a global food safety giant is a win-win for both parties.

SGS’s recent acquisition of BioVision Seed Research means an improved offering for the newly formed company’s clients, yes. But the purchase of BioVision by SGS is bigger than that.

“From a seed industry standpoint, this takes things to the next level,” says Trevor Nysetvold, the new company’s director of seed and crop in Canada.

SGS BioVision came into existence on Nov. 3, with the announced acquisition of BioVision by SGS, a major global inspection, verification, testing and certification company.

“For BioVision and for SGS, this was a natural pairing,” says Nysetvold, the former BioVision’s president and CEO.

“SGS’ Canadian and global footprint in agriculture and food is tremendous. In fact, our company’s beginnings originate in this industry,” adds Fulvio Martinez, corporate communications manager for SGS North America.

Established in 1878, SGS helped transform grain trading in Europe by offering innovative agricultural inspection services. From its early days as a grain inspection house, the company has steadily grown into the industry leader, Martinez says. This has been done through continual improvement and innovation and through supporting its customers’ operations by reducing risk and improving productivity.

Founded in 1996 and privately owned, BioVision Seed Research Ltd. employed 20 staff and generated revenues in excess of CAN$3.4 million in the last financial year. SGS today operates a network of over 2,000 offices and laboratories around the world, with more than 90,000 employees.

Going forward, SGS BioVision seed and crop services will offer comprehensive seed testing to assess the quality and health of seeds. The new company offers agricultural experience and expertise, innovative technologies, experienced staff and a unique global network.

Fulvio Martinez

“We hope the transfer of knowledge between us will enrich what we do at both the BioVision and SGS level,” adds Martinez. “It’s a fantastic win-win and chance for both of us to grow. We’re not this big fish swallowing BioVision; we’re excited about what BioVision brings to the network. We’re going to learn from them and tap into their experience and talent.”

BioVision came to the table with three accredited seed, grain and soil testing laboratories in Winnipeg, Man., as well as Edmonton and Grande Prairie, Alta., and offered testing across a broad variety of crops, supported by its fully accredited experts and laboratories (CFIA, CSI, ISO 9001:2008). “These services won’t suffer,” says Nysetvold. “Rather, they will be enhanced.”

“We also welcome a team of skilled and accredited staff, including certified seed analysts and licensed inspectors.”

The expanded offerings by SGS BioVision include a broad range of services, including seed testing for viability, vigour, germination and health; genetic and physical seed purity testing; GMO event testing; grain quality analysis; mycotoxin identification and quantification; herbicide trait testing; soil pathogen detection; and pedigreed seed crop inspection.

According to Nysetvold, existing BioVision clients will not see any difference in level of service, except the ability to provide more services.

Nysetvold says he expects further consolidation within the seed testing sector, and for others to follow the lead of SGS BioVision.

“There’s succession planning with all organizations, and there are different drivers. I do see this happening down the road with others,” he says. “For us, our reasons were very specific, very much focused on strengthening our offerings. We did this in order to broaden the scope of services we can offer to our clients.

“When we could see the strategies aligned, we realized this makes a lot of sense for us. And I think it will benefit the industry greatly.”

Nysetvold adds the global presence of SGS means the relationship between the two entities goes well beyond Canada.

“We’ve worked in the seed and soil matrices for years. Now we can go into tissue and residue testing, food and product safety testing — things that are so important to our clients that they can now get under one banner.”

— Janet Kanters and Marc Zienkiewicz

Large U.S. farm study finds no cancer link to Monsanto weedkiller

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A large long-term study on the use of the big-selling weedkiller glyphosate by agricultural workers in the United States has found no firm link between exposure to the pesticide and cancer, scientists said on Thursday, Nov. 9.

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), the study found there was no association between glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide Roundup, “and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL) and its subtypes”.

It said there was “some evidence of increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) among the highest exposed group,” but added this association was “not statistically significant”.

The findings are likely to impact legal proceedings in the United States against Monsanto, in which more than 180 plaintiffs are claiming exposure to Roundup gave them cancer – allegations Monsanto denies.

The findings may also influence a crucial decision due by the end of the year on whether glyphosate should be re-licensed for sale across the European Union. The EU decision has been delayed for more than a year after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed glyphosate in 2015 and concluded it was “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Other bodies, such as the European Food Safety Authority, have concluded glyphosate is safe to use.

The research is part of a large and important project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS), which has been tracking the health of tens of thousands of agricultural workers, farmers and their families in Iowa and North Carolina. Since the early 1990s, it has gathered and analyzed detailed information on the health of participants and their families, and their use of pesticides, including glyphosate.

David Spiegelhalter, a professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Britain’s Cambridge University who has no link to the research, said Thursday’s findings were from a “large and careful study” and showed “no significant relationship between glyphosate use and any cancer”.

 

The publication of the study on Thursday comes more than four years since drafts based on the AHS data on glyphosate and other pesticides were circulating in February and March 2013. In a summary of the results, the researchers, led by Laura Beane Freeman, principal investigator of the AHS at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, said that among 54,251 (pesticide) applicators studied, 44,932, or 82.9 percent, used glyphosate. “Glyphosate was not statistically significantly associated with cancer at any site,” the summary said.

 

Source: Reuters

Public Versus Private Crop Breeding

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Experimental winter wheat lines at AAFC Lethbridge. (Photo courtesy Robert Graf)

There are some important differences between public and private breeding – and how these differences affect seed growers and crop farmers is often a matter of hot debate in Canada.

Until the 1990s, seed development in Canada was primarily public, and continuing public crop breeding still provides a high return on investment, according to Dr. Rob Graf, a winter wheat breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alta. Indeed, it’s been estimated that every dollar invested in public cereals breeding provides at least 20 times the return in the form of better crops, spin-off industry jobs, check off investments in additional research and so on. With private-bred seed, many argue most of the profits often go to company shareholders who may not even be Canadian.

Dr. Stephen Morgan Jones agrees that private plant breeding is conducted to make a profit. “Public plant breeding is primarily carried out to produce improved varieties with the adoption of the new variety being more important than the return on investment,” explains the owner of Lethbridge-based consulting firm Amaethon Agricultural Solutions. “There is also a general feeling that private breeding programs, such as the ones for canola, soybean and corn, are very well capitalized, with excellent equipment and other resources, whereas public breeding programs tend to generally have resource issues.”

Dr. Robert Graf

It is also a perception among many in the crop sector that, high return on investment or not, Canada’s public breeding efforts when it comes to cereal varieties have been dismal – amongst the lowest yielding in the world. Graf disagrees and points out that the rate of yield increase for wheat in Western Canada compares favourably with other parts of the world and that average yields are trending upwards. It is also clear, he says, that public cultivars are very popular with western Canadian farmers. Public wheat breeding is wholly directed towards finished cultivars that are vital to the industry, and Graf says that while public breeders have been very effective in increasing yield, productivity traits and disease resistance through long-term, stable breeding programs, there is also ample room for private sector involvement. “Both sectors are focused on industry sustainability,” he says, “but the way it’s looked at may be somewhat different.”

Morgan Jones notes wheat producers are very much already involved in partnerships with public plant breeding, with millions of producer dollars invested in it on an ongoing basis through the wheat check-off. He also points out that the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) and the wheat commissions (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) have developed long-term partnerships with universities and government, and these arrangements often include the sharing of royalty revenue from producer-supported varieties. Like Graf, he notes there are some 4-P arrangements (public/private/producer partnerships) already in place, and that these could be enhanced. (See article in this issue with updates on a very successful Canadian 4-P partnership.)

Cost and Risk

Some crop farmers have concerns about the present cost of private-bred seed and that those costs will only rise. The cost of private-bred canola is certainly high, but farmers have found that with this crop, a good profit is still achievable due to factors like high yield and strong market demand. However, some farmers wonder if the same situation will occur with cereals.

Morgan Jones says although Syngenta has been involved in wheat breeding in Western Canada for many years, and other companies such as Bayer and Canterra Seeds have recently begun investing in it, companies have rightly had concerns about recovering costs.

“For large acreage crops such as CWRS [Canada Western Red Spring] wheat, there is a sufficiently large seed market to justify investment,” he says. “But if you compare the economics for wheat and canola, with wheat seed planted at about 20 times the rate of canola seed, there is the issue of handling quite a large amount of seed and producing it in a way that makes any profit viable. There is thus little interest in cereal crops with less than five million acres.”

Morgan Jones acknowledges that private company development of proprietary traits such as herbicide or insect resistance requires a large investment and that this ultimately results in higher seed prices. On the other hand, public breeders, in most cases, take a royalty on the future sales of their variety by the seed company, but the royalty is usually less than five per cent of the seed price.

Dr. Stephen Morgan Jones

“This means that private companies will tend to focus on traits that have an immediate positive impact on farmer profit, such as increased yield and lower input costs or lower cost production systems,” he says. “In contrast, public investment in plant breeding tends to be for the longer term, with more attention given to finding new sources of disease and insect resistance, and maintaining and improving wheat quality.”

Morgan Jones also points out that while private companies dominate the canola seed market, there is still a large public investment in canola genomics, pre-breeding new lines and sources of disease resistance. “I think it’s important to have a balance of public and private investment,” he notes.

However, in his view, this does not apply in cases where there are multiple private companies competing to provide similar seed that meet farmers’ needs.

“In that situation, there is little justification to continue public investment in variety development, and public investment is better to shift to a more basic, longer-term approach to ensure the genetic variability is available for the future,” Morgan Jones says. “At the same time, there is no doubt that using current methodology, the current private focus of developing hybrid wheat varieties will be more expensive to produce and market, and the extra performance will have to be very evident for farmers to be motivated to spend more on the seed.”

Moving Forward

In terms of how private and public wheat breeding will play out in the coming years, Graf would like to see germplasm exchange encouraged and simplified.

“Germplasm is the ‘life-blood’ of plant breeding, and if we are to meet the challenging requirements of the future, we need to work together, building on each other’s successes,” he says.

Morgan Jones notes breeders have a voluntary code of practice promoting ethical behaviour, and though the code does include exchange between public and private breeders, he suspects this is limited to certain material only.

“For germplasm exchange to work effectively, it requires breeders who receive material to reciprocate with others,” he says. “Some universities in the U.S. strictly control their germplasm and want a share of any future revenues that may result from their germplasm being used in future crosses. This tends to limit exchange of germplasm. In the case of wheat in Canada, the best germplasm is currently held by public plant breeders, although this may change in the longer term as private companies invest more in wheat.”

Graf also believes the current strong, transparent and merit-based registration system should continue, with its balanced approach to sector requirements that include disease and pest resistance. He says it works for the benefit of the entire industry and it encourages quick uptake of new cultivars because there is less risk to the entire value chain, from the pedigreed seed producer to the commercial farmer and end-use customer.

Morgan Jones, however, thinks the current process of government-controlled variety registration adds years to the time a new variety could be released to the industry. He suggests the possibility of a hybrid registration system, where a producer could get very early access to advanced breeder lines in which traits were reliably expressed, and work with a grain company to commercially test them. The farmer and grain company would jointly take the risk and in some cases the breeding line would be rejected, but the ones that were successful would likely be able to be commercialized two to three years sooner.

“I would argue that food safety is the role for government and that the industry itself should be mature enough to manage quality as is the case in other commodities,” Morgan Jones notes.

Whatever the future holds, Graf believes there will always be a need for public breeding. For example, he says there has been little private interest in developing new durum varieties, minor spring wheat classes or winter wheat, so public breeding of these classes will therefore need to continue if the industry sees value in Canadian production of these commodities.

Starting with the Best

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Quality assurances of varietal purity, germination and freedom from impurities are just a few reasons why certified seed represents a good value proposition for farmers.

Know what you grow. Rob Graf believes the old adage not only holds true for summing up the value of certified seed, but it is even more important in today’s world of ever-improving genetics.

“With certified seed, there are very definite and deliberate procedures put in place to make sure that within relatively tight tolerances the variety that’s being purchased is true to type,” says Graf, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist and wheat breeder at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre in Alberta.

It’s these requirements, he adds, that ensure producers get the enhanced traits they expect when they purchase a specific variety of certified seed. Improvements in such areas as yield, pest resistance and drought tolerance can take millions of dollars and years of R&D, and it is only through certified seed that they can be reliably accessed.

“I’m a wheat breeder, and we’re constantly looking at developing varieties with higher yields and good agronomic characteristics and improved disease resistance,” says Graf. “Pedigreed seed is the avenue by which you can legally acquire seed which has these new genetics.”

Ron Markert is a certified seed producer in Vulcan, Alta. The president of Markert Seeds Ltd., who also serves on the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA) board, says those who grow and process pedigreed seed are always striving to provide growers with the highest performing products.

Ron Markert

“If you want to keep on top of the game now in farming, you have to have the best of everything in terms of genetics,” Markert says. “Margins are very tight in the agricultural sector and you have to be as efficient as you can. One way to do that is to seed the best genetics. Newer varieties can offer a higher yield, disease resistance, insect tolerance and many other agronomic characteristics that will help increase your bottom line.”

“As growers of certified seed… we are expected to meet very stringent standards, rules and regulations to ensure that the purity of that variety is maintained,” Markert adds. “Farmers are after a quality product, so if we can’t deliver that, they won’t continue to buy.”

How is Certified Seed Produced

According to the CSGA website, the pedigree of a certified seed crop is documented on paper from the breeding establishment to commercial sale. Testing by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) accredited seed labs is used to confirm the seed purity and germination of all certified seed crops.

Pedigreed seed producers must follow strict standards for isolation distances and land-use history, as well as maximum levels of off-type varieties, other crop kinds and weeds. Years of planning which crop will be planted where is also required, as well as cleaning seeders and combines between plots and fields, cleaning augers and storage facilities between varieties, and weeding and roguing plots and fields to remove off-types and weeds from the pedigreed seed crop.

In the field, third-party inspections overseen by CFIA verify the isolation of the seed crop and that it was produced from a higher-level progeny. The absence of volunteer crops and off-type varieties is also confirmed. In addition, random sampling is conducted in pedigreed seed processing plants to ensure seeds are free from weeds and other crop kinds.

Graf says the result of all this is that growers know that what they’re putting into the ground is quality seed.

“It’s inspected for purity, it’s inspected for germination, it’s inspected for weed seeds, and here in Alberta there’s a zero tolerance for Fusarium gramineaum,” he says. “All of these factors make certified seed a value proposition for farmers.”

Rob Graf

Growers who choose to buy common seed or use farm-saved seed often do it to try to save money, but Graf says that strategy can be short-sighted. Not only is there the expense of cleaning farm-saved seed to consider, but the price for not using certified seed could be lower-performing crops and weed-infested fields in the future.

“If a farmer is growing several different varieties of the same crop and they’re not cleaning their combine out and so on, over a number of years you will get some contamination that you may not even be aware of. The same goes for the amount of weeds,” Graf says.

Markert agrees that certified seed provides excellent value for growers.

“I can certainly tell you that over the years that we’ve been growing certified seed, farmers are getting a bargain because of all the work that we have to do,” Markert says. “There’s a lot that goes into producing that pure crop. Everything has to be very meticulously controlled to make sure farmers get what we tell them they’re going to get.”

Markert says he’s found that more and more growers, especially the larger ones, are recognizing the benefits of certified seed.

“They just realized that, ‘you know, I could use bin run seed to save a buck but it’s just not worth it. I might as well buy certified seed. Then I know I’m getting quality seed, and in return I’m going to get a better price in the end when I market my product.’”

Alberta Youths Win Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture Competition awards

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Lois Schultz from Wetaskiwin, Alta. is the senior champion of the Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture (CYSA) Competition, and Quentin Albrecht from Holden, Alta., placed first runner-up in the junior division.

Senior Champion Lois Schultz

The 2017 competition took place Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.

The 33rd edition of CYSA welcomed 27 competitors, aged 11 to 24, from across Canada who offered their insights and solutions regarding the following topics:

  • Working in agriculture is more than just farming.
  • Does digital farming have a place in the future of Canadian agriculture?
  • Farm gate to dinner plate: The importance of food traceability for Canadian consumers.
  • How will we feed 9 billion people by 2050?
  • Food waste: What is the global impact and who is responsible for making a change?

Other winners included senior first runner-up Maria Clemotte from Nanaimo, B.C. and second runner-up Jennifer Betzner of Lynden, Ont. Junior champion was Rosemund Ragetli from Winnipeg, Man. while second runner-up in the junior division was William Orr from Howick, Que.

Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture is a national, bilingual competition that provides a platform for participants to share their opinions, ideas and concerns about the Canadian agri-food industry in a five- to seven-minute prepared speech.

Canada’s youth are already preparing for the 2018 competition. Topics were announced following the seniors final round, and they are:

  • My view on diversity in Canadian agriculture.
  • Canadian agriculture needs more people – and this is how we’re going to get them.
  • What is sustainability and why does it matter to Canadian agriculture?
  • The next big thing in Canadian agriculture is: _______
  • How can we educate urban populations about where our food comes from and the industry standards involved?

Each year, the renowned public speaking competition is held at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. The competition is open to youth ages 11 to 24 with a passion for agriculture, whether raised on a farm, in the country or in the city.

Since the first competition held at the Royal Winter Fair in honour of the International Year of the Youth in 1985, it has gone on to become the premier public speaking event in Canada for young people interested in agriculture, with more than 950 participants over the years.

The bitter battle over the world’s most popular insecticides

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Bee populations are declining in many parts of the globe, a worrying sign for the crops and wild plants that rely on these pollinators for their survival. Parasites, disease and shrinking food resources are all prime suspects. But a link to neonics has become a major flashpoint.

READ MORE

Accessing New Seed Varieties

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New tools and techniques influence how new varieties are developed and can also shave a little off the timeline.

 

The development of new crop varieties in Canada and elsewhere is a matter of what farmers want and need, but also what consumers want and need. So says Trent Whiting, marketing representative at SeCan.

“You have to listen to what farmers want, and of course they want everything – great disease package, high yield, strong straw and so on – and we also have to look at end uses,” he explains. “We are always looking to provide the best performance we can for farmers, and there are also regional differences in how a variety will perform as well. We try to work with breeding partners to address that too.”

Colette Prefontaine

Canterra Seeds also gathers information from numerous sources in the process of selecting new varieties, including industry information such as variety performance records, data from breeders and input both from seed growers and farmers.

“Canterra Seeds has made it a priority to determine the needs of our customers, which include both farmers and end-users, as you need to meet everyone’s needs to be successful,” says Colette Prefontaine, pedigreed seed territory manager with Canterra. “If a variety is high-yielding, for example, but doesn’t have the quality that processors are looking for, they won’t buy it. Conversely, if a variety has a unique quality attribute but has terrible standability, farmers won’t grow it. Both sets of needs matter.”

While the breeding process is very similar to what it was decades ago, it has also changed in some ways over the last few years.

“The change that stands out for me is that breeders are able to communicate directly with farmers through social media and the internet,” says Whiting. “Information flow is so much better, with real-world feedback coming in from farmer or end-use customers faster than ever. I saw a tweet the other day from one of our members praising a new winter wheat variety he was growing and the breeder responded directly to him right away. It’s amazing to see that direct communication. It’s unprecedented. It’s fantastic that we are all working together to fine-tune the right variety for the right place, working together to make a variety succeed… with breeders getting feedback right from early stage germplasm through all the other stages.”

Prefontaine agrees there has been a definite shift to more direct connection and two-way influence. “There is a lot of communication between all parties, and in fact, at Canterra, we have staff dedicated to fostering these relationships and ensuring a constant information flow,” she notes. “I was sitting on a combine the other day with a seed grower who is connected directly with a processor in his area. This type of direct connection results in a greater level of specialization and the existence of more variety-specific attributes, all of which helps meet the needs of both the grower and the end-user.”

Caroline Lafontaine

Caroline Lafontaine, managing director of communications and member services with the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association (CGSA), notes there has also been a change in the last decade in the way food companies are working to a greater degree with breeders on end-use attributes.

“Food companies are working with plant breeders, and investing in research to develop seed varieties that will create ingredients that can reliably delivery improved texture, flavour, nutritional characteristics and appearance to help them distinguish their food product from their competitors,” she says. This could include “different barley varieties to provide different flavour profiles for beer, specific wheat varieties for increased crisp in crackers, or different soybean varieties to produce varying textures, firmness and flavour profiles for tofu.”

Breeding to Commercialization

Commercialization of a new variety is quite a long process with many stages. The selection process can start with over one million lines, notes Whiting (see graphic) and typically lasts 12 or more years. Part of that process takes place after breeder seed release. After that point, says Prefontaine, it typically takes three or four years of multiplication in the certification process before seed gets to the certified stage and is available for widespread commercial release.

Trent Whiting

“At the very beginning, you do lots of crosses and then select again and again from those crosses as you go along,” says Whiting. “The more crosses you have, the more you have to select from; but the more crosses you have, the more you have to manage and the costs are higher. It’s getting common nowadays to speed up the process through contra-season growing trials in places like California and New Zealand, and that’s costly in terms of shipping germplasm and staff and can be complex in working out arrangements for land use, but can be cost-effective in the end. It can shave down the entire process to nine or 10 years instead of it taking 13 or 14.”

The other costly requirements that go into the development of pedigreed seed are not likely to change. “The cost involves the innovation with the genetics and then the actual production of the seed, the land use requirements, cleaning, all that and a little bit of margin for doing that,” Whiting notes.

Adds Lafontaine: “To an outsider, seed production may seem like growing any other crop, but seed growers must ensure that their seed crop meets high standards for varietal and mechanical purity. This involves continuous monitoring and quality management in the field as well as rigorous cleaning and grading post-harvest. It also involves significant regulatory oversight, including third-party inspection, establishment audits and post-harvest testing before the official blue certified seed tag can be applied.”

She says seed growers work tirelessly to ensure their seed crops are as pure and true to its varietal identity as it can be, which can mean rogueing the crop to remove other crop kinds, impurities or weeds, sanitizing seeding and harvesting equipment between varieties to remove possible contamination from other crop kinds, or segregating different varieties and classes of pedigreed seed in separate storage bins. The entire process must also be well documented for traceability purposes.

“While market demand and supply ultimately determine the price of all seed, the generally higher cost of pedigreed seed reflects, among other factors, the significant investment of seed growers in quality control and in meeting regulatory requirements,” says Lafontaine. “This, in turn, buys the farmer a guaranteed level of quality assurance, backed up by the blue tag, and provides one of the best risk management tools available.”

Prefontaine echoes the sentiments. “When you buy pedigreed seed, you are investing with that purchase in technology, quality and traceability,” she says. “You are contributing to the entire investment required in bringing new innovations forward, and playing an important role in ensuring a strong the future for Canadian crop production for years to come.”

Industry Consolidation

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The face of the many large agri-business companies in Canada is changing. Dow and DuPont recently concluded their merger, ChemChina is currently finalizing their purchase of Syngenta and Bayer is working through the regulatory hurdles as part of their acquisition of Monsanto.

With fewer chemical and seed companies on the horizon, it’s expected growers will benefit from the kind of high dollar investment in research and development that other big technology industries have seen in recent years.

Marcus Weidler

“Consolidation can be good thing, but we need to explain and demonstrate the benefits to our customers,” says Marcus Weidler, head of seeds with Bayer Canada. “It is becoming more and more challenging to bring innovation to market, and companies have to invest heavily to bring new technologies to customers.”

The costs to introduce new technologies are often so high due to the amount of time it takes to bring products to market. Bayer’s successful pod shatter reduction technology was launched in 2014, but the company first started work on the technology in the late 1990s. And as a non-GM trait, this technology wasn’t as complex as much of current seed trait research.

“We have invested billions in research and development, but not only is science becoming more complex, the regulatory environment can be unpredictable, and that also means more time and more investment,” says Weidler. “We sell to many countries that have different rules and regulations and those rules are constantly evolving. Once a product has been developed, it then requires more money to conduct the number of studies necessary to satisfy the needs of the grower [and] the consumer, and also meet government requirements.”

Jeff Nielsen, president of the Grain Growers of Canada, doesn’t see that there will be much change from a seed grower or a farmer perspective following this round of consolidation.

“These combined companies will need good local seed growers, and as they bring new seed products to market they will be relying on local seed production to even greater levels,” he says. “Most growers already have established strong connections with all of these companies and even with consolidation, I don’t see them reducing their levels of service. It wouldn’t make business sense.”

Jeff Nielsen

He says the agriculture industry has been consolidating for the past two decades, and so far, the strong public breeding programs have remained intact, and heavy regulation has meant that competition remains strong. He says he hopes these larger entities could also have increased power in lobbying for increasing government funding for research.

“More research is needed to find solutions to problems that we are currently struggling with in Canadian farming, such as Fusarium in wheat,” he says. “We don’t have a solution to Fusarium right now and it is possible that solution will come from seed. We hope that these merged companies will have the means to invest in research at a more intense level.”

Trish Jordan, public and industry affairs director with Monsanto, agrees. “The merger between Monsanto and Bayer is driven by the need for investment, and to continue to drive research and development on both the seed and the chemical sides of the business,” she says. “This industry has always balanced competition with collaboration. Agriculture still has more than 3,500 companies across North America that provide goods and services, and the change from six to three big life sciences companies is really just allowing for greater investment into the industry.”

Jordan says Bayer and Monsanto have very little overlap, and any duplication will be addressed through global regulatory networks in advance of finalizing the deal. She admits growers worry about having fewer choices – but in fact they could have more choice as the combined products and services offer a larger combination of solutions.

“New entrants into the business are continuing to change the way the business of agriculture works,” she says. “There are countless startups in the business of digital farming and analytics that will enhance some of the products we offer to help improve farming. While there is a lot of change right now, the agriculture businessplace is not shrinking.”

Trish Jordan

Jordan adds it would not be in any business’s best interest to alienate their customers, and their research is completed with the end customer in mind.

“If we create $1 of a benefit on a new product innovation, then a farmer needs to see a portion of it, the retailer needs to have their share, we need to secure a percentage and then we reinvest it into bringing the next innovation to the market,” she says. “If we aren’t offering the options that growers are asking for, then we won’t be successful as a business.”

For growers concerned about competition, Jordan stresses the global competition process is very demanding, and that each country’s regulatory body looks at individual pieces of the combined business and it decides if it is adding or detracting to competition in the marketplace. “If they see that a company has too much impact in a certain area, they may ask them to divest that interest,” she says.

Weidler says for Bayer and Monsanto, in the short-term growers won’t really see any change as the new business’s number one focus will be on serving their customer.

“At the end of the day, we have to make sure that our business relationships are intact and that we are able to provide the same level of service as we have in the past,” he says. “Our number one principle going forward is no interruption in service. It will then be up to us to prove to the grower and to consumers how these combined companies will be better for them in the long term.”

SGS acquires BioVision Seed Research Ltd.

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SGS announced today that it has acquired BioVision Seed Research Ltd., a seed, grain and soil testing laboratory serving the agricultural markets in Western Canada and beyond.

BioVision is headquartered Sherwood Park, Alta., with additional facilities in Winnipeg, Man. and Grand Prairie, Alta. The company offers testing across a broad variety of crops, supported by its fully-accredited experts and laboratories (CFIA, CSI, ISO 9001:2008).

Founded in 1996 and privately owned, BioVision Seed Research Ltd. employs 20 staff and generated revenues in excess of CAD 3.4 million in the last financial year.

“This acquisition reinforces our already strong presence in the Canadian agricultural market and allows us to expand our portfolio of services across our extensive country-wide branch network,” said Frankie Ng, CEO of SGS.

According to a news release, SGS is the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company. The company is recognized as the global benchmark for quality and integrity. With more than 90,000 employees, SGS operates a network of over 2,000 offices and laboratories around the world.