Pot Genetics: Why cannabis strains don’t all live up to their billing

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Canopy Growth, a cannabis company in Smiths Falls, Ont., is actively breeding pot and drilling into its genetics to create new strains with consistent characteristics. (Photo Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Red Diesel, Moby Dick, Lemon Burst, or how about Girl Scout Cookies? All names for “bud,” the cannabis flower, and when the black market product goes legal in Canada this summer expect some heavy marketing of fancy names and their tantalizing effects.

But plant scientists say the “sell” is hazy. Those buds have a mixed-up lineage and don’t always match what’s advertised.

It’s about genetics, and cannabis is a mixed breed, to say the least.

With more than 100 creative names for pot, each variant is said to have slightly different properties and that translates into different effects, according to vendors.

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Uncovering a Genetic Mechanism to Enhance Yield Potential in Cereal Crops

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Andrea Eveland, Ph.D.

Solving the world’s food, feed and bioenergy challenges requires integration of multiple approaches and diverse skills. Andrea Eveland, Ph.D., assistant member at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and her team identified a genetic mechanism that controls developmental traits related to grain production in cereals. The work was performed in Setaria viridis, an emerging model system for grasses that is closely related to economically important cereal crops and bioenergy feed stocks such as maize, sorghum, switchgrass and sugarcane.

The Eveland laboratory’s research findings, “Brassinosteroids modulate meristem fate and differentiation of unique inflorescence morphology in Setaria viridis”, were recently published in the journal The Plant Cell. In their study, Yang et al. mapped a genetic locus in the S. viridis genome that controls growth of sterile branches called bristles, which are produced on the grain-bearing inflorescences of some grass species. Their research revealed that these sterile bristles are initially programmed to be spikelets; grass-specific structures that produce flowers and grain. Eveland’s work showed that conversion of a spikelet to a bristle is determined early in inflorescence development and regulated by a class of plant hormones called brassinosteroids (BRs), which modulate a range of physiological processes in plant growth, development and immunity. In addition to converting a sterile structure to a seed-bearing one, the research also showed that localized disruption of BR synthesis can lead to production of two flowers per spikelet rather than the single one that typically forms. These BR-dependent phenotypes therefore represent two potential avenues for enhancing grain production in millets, including subsistence crops in many developing countries that remain largely untapped for genetic improvement.

“This work is a great demonstration of how Setaria viridis can be leveraged to gain fundamental insights into the mechanisms that govern seed production in the grasses – our most important group of plants that includes corn, sorghum, rice, wheat and barley,” said Thomas Brutnell, Ph.D., Director of the Enterprise Institute for Renewable Fuels, Danforth Center. “It’s also worth noting that this project was conceived and work initiated after Dr. Eveland joined the Danforth Center – an impressive feat for a junior faculty member that speaks to both the advantages of working on a model system and the great team that she has assembled at the Danforth Center.”

At the Danforth Center, Eveland’s research focuses on the developmental mechanisms that control plant architecture traits in cereal crops. Specifically, she investigates how plant organs are formed from stem cells, and how variation in the underlying gene regulatory networks can precisely modulate plant form. Her team integrates both computational and experimental approaches to explore how perturbations to these gene networks can alter morphology, both within a species and across the grasses, with the ultimate goal of defining targets for improving grain yield in cereals.

“The genetics and genomics tools that are emerging for Setaria enable more rapid dissection of molecular pathways such as this one, and allow us to manipulate them directly in a system that is closely related to the food crops we aim to improve,” said Eveland. “It means we are just that much closer to designing and deploying optimal architectures for cereal crops. The prospect of leveraging these findings for improvement of related grasses that are also orphan crop species, such as pearl and foxtail millets, is especially exciting.”

 

David Sippell Joins Cibus to Lead Canadian Operations

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Cibus, a leading trait development and plant breeding company, has appointed David Sippell as Vice President, and General Manager, Canada. He will manage Canadian operations from Cibus’ new office in Winnipeg.

Sippell has more than three decades of experience within the agribusiness sector. With the recent launch of SU Canola in Canada, Sippell will direct Cibus’ growth and expansion into the Canadian canola market.

“David’s addition to the Cibus team as the leader of our Canadian operations will steer the company’s progress in this geography and provide innovative profit-yielding options to Canadian farmers,” said Peter Beetham, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Cibus. “David’s extensive knowledge of the seed business and international agribusiness expertise will strengthen and grow Cibus’ expanding presence in the world’s most valuable canola seed market.”

David Sippell

Sippell will bolster Cibus’ growing commercial team. “David’s expertise in the agribusiness sector and his deep knowledge and passion for the canola industry will contribute to the expansion of Cibus’ operations in Canada,” said Bradley Castanho, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Commercial and Business Development.

Sippell’s experience includes decades of leadership experience in the canola seed business in Canada with a range of companies that include Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Syngenta, and Sippell was the founding President and CEO of Canterra Seeds Holdings Ltd., a grower-owned seed company. Sippell holds a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy in Plant Pathology and Plant Breeding from the University of Guelph.

According to a news release, SU Canola offers Canadian growers valuable, non-GMO hybrids that provide a new option for weed control. Cibus’ first canola hybrid was registered for sale in Canada in spring 2017. Led by Sippell, Cibus’ Winnipeg office is the flagship for expanding Canadian operations as Cibus launches its expanding product portfolio.

Speed breeding technique sows seeds of new green revolution

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Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom was one of the authors of a new study that reveals a method called "speed breeding."

Pioneering new technology is set to accelerate the global quest for crop improvement in a development which echoes the Green Revolution of the post war period.

The speed-breeding platform developed by teams at the John Innes Centre, University of Queensland and University of Sydney, uses a glasshouse or an artificial environment with enhanced lighting to create intense day-long regimes to speed up the search for better performing crops.

Using the technique, the team has achieved wheat generation from seed to seed in just eight weeks. These results appear in Nature Plants.

This means that it is now possible to grow as many as six generations of wheat every year – a threefold increase on the shuttle-breeding techniques currently used by breeders and researchers.

Dr. Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, a lead author on the paper, explains why speed is of the essence: “Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher yielding and more resilient crops. Being able to cycle through more generations in less time, will allow us to more rapidly create and test genetic combinations and find the best combinations for different environments.”

For many years the improvement rates of several staple crops have stalled, leading to a significant impediment in the quest to feed the growing global population and address the impacts of climate change.

Speed breeding, says Wulff, offers a potential new solution to a global challenge for the 21st century.

“People said you may be able to cycle plants fast, but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seed. In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions. One colleague could not believe it when he first saw the results.”

The exciting breakthrough has the potential to rank, in terms of impact, alongside the shuttle-breeding techniques introduced after the second world war as part of the green revolution.

Wulff goes on to say: “I would like to think that in 10 years from now you could walk into a field and point to plants whose attributes and traits were developed using this technology.”

This technique uses fully controlled growth environments and can also be scaled up to work in a standard glass house. It uses LED lights optimized to aid photosynthesis in intensive regimes of up to 22 hours per day.

LED lights significantly reduce the cost compared to sodium vapour lamps which have long been in widespread use but are ineffective because they generate much heat and emit poor quality light.

The international team also prove that the speed breeding technique can be used for a range of important crops. They have achieved up to six generations per year for bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, pea and chickpea; and four generations for canola. This is a significant increase compared with widely used commercial breeding techniques.

Speed breeding, when employed alongside conventional field-based techniques, can be an important tool to enable advances in understanding the genetics of crops.

“Speed breeding as a platform can be combined with lots of other technologies such as CRISPR gene editing to get to the end result faster,” explains Dr. Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland.

The study shows that traits such as plant pathogen interactions, plant shape and structure, and flowering time can be studied in detail and repeated using the technology.

The speed breeding technology has been welcomed by wheat breeders who have become early adopters.

Ruth Bryant, wheat pathologist at RAGT Seeds Ltd., Essex, UK, said: “Breeders are always looking for ways to speed up the process of getting a variety to market so we are really interested in the concept of speed breeding. We are working closely with Dr. Wulff’s group at the John Innes Centre to develop this method in a commercial setting.”

Dr. Allan Rattey, a wheat crop breeder with Australian company Dow AgroSciences, has used the technology to breed wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting (PHS), a major problem in Australia.

“Environmental control for effective PHS screening and the long time taken to cycle through several cycles of recurrent selection were major bottle necks. The speed breeding and targeted selection platform have driven major gains for both of these areas of concerns.”

Source: John Innes Centre

The 4-P Funding Model

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(Photo courtesy Harpinder S. Randhawa)

Taking a look at one very successful Alberta-based initiative.

The 4-P model (public/private/producer partnership) for crop R&D involves funding contributions from government, private companies and producers. This type of initiative is seen as an effective way to pool resources and ensure the growth of total overall investment in variety development in Canada – and according to those directly involved, the 4-P involving Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC), Canterra Seeds and the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) is no exception.

This particular 4-P started in 2014 and runs through to the end of 2018, but Tom Steve reports that discussions about renewal will begin in early 2018.

Tom Steve

“It’s the main CPSR (Canada Prairie Spring Red) wheat breeding program in Western Canada,” says Steve, general manager at the AWC. “Three-quarters of this wheat class is grown in Alberta as it’s well-suited to the climate. It goes into both feed and milling markets.”

The partnership’s main benefit for producers in his view is the continuation of a program that was in danger of being shut down. The main CPSR breeder at AAFC in Winnipeg had retired and the program was in jeopardy, he recalls. AAFC put out a request for partnership proposals in early 2014, and Canterra Seeds submitted one that was accepted in March. AAFC then held discussions with multiple grower groups that had expressed potential interest in participating, and by mid-2014, notes Canterra Seeds president and CEO David Hansen, AWC had joined the partnership with the full support of his company. All three parties are contributing $3.4 million in cash and in-kind items over the five-year timeline.

“It’s overall a great way to develop new varieties with higher yields and better disease resistance,” Steve notes. “Alberta farmers, through the AWC, will get a share of royalties on seed sales, likely starting with a variety called AAC Crossfield in the fall of 2018, and those royalties will go back into further research investments.”

Two other lines are already also approved for registration, and Hansen says there are many new candidates in the variety registration trials “that are showing amazing promise.”

Harpinder S. Randhawa

Dr. Harpinder Singh Randhawa, based at AAFC Lethbridge, is the partnership’s breeder behind these varieties. He notes the 4-P model is not just about funding, but about providing other resources critical to ensuring a strong breeding program moving forward.

“With AAFC sites that have closed, for example the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg around 2012, and also the downsizing of satellite research sites, there really was no room for my breeding work,” he explains. “Through this partnership, I have access to trial sites through Canterra and this is very important. Money is certainly needed for variety development, but you also need other resources. To have the increased research capacity over a greater geographic area in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta greatly benefits the research. Canterra is also providing evaluation work.”

Canterra Seeds is also providing insight into commercial opportunities, says Hansen, as well as the ability to use different production and commercialization models based on what is best for a particular variety to maximize its distribution and value. In addition, Canterra is providing links to end-users and an understanding of their requirements in Canada and the U.S. in order to help guide development of new varieties in the program.

Beyond all this, Steve lists another benefit of this arrangement for producers: AWC’s close relationship with Dr. Randhawa. “It’s a great exchange of information,” he says.

Hansen agrees. “The relationship among the three partners continues to grow,” he notes. “We are well-aligned, and with an effective governance model in place we are able to work well towards the objectives of the agreement. Partnerships make sense when you are able to bring various elements required to the table to further the advancement, versus everyone trying to do things on their own. Wheat is a very complex crop that requires a significant investment in order for it to remain a competitive option for the farmer. This may not apply for all crops, but for wheat and durum, this does seem to be true, and so the arrangement definitely makes sense.”

David Hansen

Hansen adds that Canterra Seeds’ interest in continuing the three-way relationship is strong, and that it fully intends to explore new opportunities, including perhaps the involvement of Limagrain Cereals Research Canada if it makes sense. Limagrain and Canterra Seeds have a partnership, and this relationship could provide opportunity for expanded future collaboration, including germplasm and breeding tools.

For his part, Steve notes that for AWC, the 4-P model for breeding Canada Prairie Spring Red wheat has been very successful and he looks forward to discussions on a renewal.

“We really like this model, and with it, we have the resources in place for a world-class program,” he says. “We look forward to more varieties over the next few years.”

Harpinder adds that from his perspective, it would be wonderful to continue on, and he looks forward to sitting down and discussing it early next year.

“It’s been wonderful,” he says, “to work both with Canterra and also the Alberta Wheat Commission.”

Alberta Regional Variety Trials

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In 2017, the cereal and flax RVT program under ARVAC expects to generate $76,700 through a $1,300 annual testing fee charged for each variety being tested, excluding checks. (Photo: Janet Kanters)

The Alberta Regional Variety Testing program (RVT) is the most trusted source of variety information for producers in Alberta. Farmers need accurate, regional and the most current variety information to stay competitive.

The Alberta Regional Variety Advisory Committee (ARVAC), the official body that establishes policy for the variety-testing program, takes this responsibility very seriously, and constantly strives to present the data in the most appropriate and understandable manner.

According to Alex Fedko, RVT program coordinator and crop research technologist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, the goal of the RVT is to provide cereal, flax and pulse crop growers, and industry and extension specialists with scientifically valid crop variety performance information under different agro-climatic conditions. Data is published in the Alberta Seed Guide and in Alberta Agriculture’s Varieties of Cereal and Oilseed Crops for Alberta pamphlet.

“There are many sources of variety information for producers,” says Fedko. “However, this program is unique because the data comes from two independent sources: the co-op trials where new crop cultivars are tested before registration and data from post-registration (regional) trials. For example, the spring wheat co-op data that is reported in the Varieties of Cereal and Oilseed Crops for Alberta factsheets includes days to maturity, resistance to lodging, shattering and sprouting, and resistance to five different diseases. It is hard to find a third-party source of information that would have all the relevant material in one package.

“Free access to independent variety performance information helps producers to select varieties that perform well in their commercial fields, and also this data is helping seed growers to choose a cultivar that will meet their customers’ needs,” adds Fedko.

Accurate Data

The RVT program is responsible for generating unbiased post-registration information for varieties of wheat, barley, oat, rye triticale, flax, field pea, chickpea, lentil, dry bean and faba bean.

Good field trials are required to generate reliable data, and several quality control steps are in place to achieve this. Fedko annually reviews test protocols with collaborators to detail the conduct of the trials and the expectations. All of the field trials are also inspected; cooperators receive 35 per cent of the plot payment for seeding, but unless the trial passes a July inspection, no further payment is made.

Crop specific coordinators, individuals who are experts in the crop, review the raw data prior to analysis. After the data are approved, statistical analysis is performed and measures of variability similar to those used in crop registration trials are used to determine the reliability of the trial prior to entry into the database. Finally, the crop specific coordinators review the tables prior to presentation before the committee, where they are discussed and ultimately approved for publication.

“We constantly strive to present the data in the most pertinent and understandable manner. As examples, in recent years we’ve changed the method of yield data presentation, used actual ratings to report disease resistance and added various columns of new information,” notes Fedko. “And finally, producers have asked us to enter a few more cultivars that they may be able to relate to more readily. The entries in the trials changes every year and it is made up of new varieties that producers are likely to see within the next two to three years.”

The inclusion of some older “benchmark” cultivars that are well known to producers started this season and Fedko says that should help producers make better-informed decisions. The selection of the benchmark varieties is based on the most popular varieties from data published in Yield Alberta. It means that wheat, barley and oat trials now have three to four checks instead of one.

Understanding Cereal Variety Data

When comparing varietal performance data, growers should find as much information as they can from various sources.

“The RVT tables done by independent cooperators is really just another set of data to compare the results producers are seeing from company data, variety registration data, crop insurance data or their own field trials,” says Fedko. “Consistency among the different sources of data sets is the key. If a variety is repeatedly coming out in the top, the confidence that it will perform well goes up.”

However, in case there are substantial differences among those different data sets, it doesn’t necessarily mean a grower should stay away from a variety, but rather it should be the signal to do more research. In this case, digging deeper into background of those trials may help. Protocols used, weather conditions, or other growing season stresses may have caused the poorer performance at some locations.

Looking at other factors besides yield is important to get a complete picture. In many cases, the varieties included in the trials are top performing varieties from various programs, so the yield differences may be small. In this case, a variety that has a larger number of station years can increase confidence.

Other factors that may be as important as yield data are maturity, lodging and disease ratings. Growers have many options at their disposal, however, spending a lot of money on good genetics will not compensate for poor agronomic management. Starting with good genetics is a foundation to have a successful crop, but it can’t make up for poor management down the road. It is still important to get adequate plant population established early, sufficient nutrients for an appropriate target yield, and then protect the yield potential from pests and harvest losses.

Funding

Conducting regional variety testing for numerous crops over the large agricultural area of Alberta is a huge undertaking. The RVT program is funded in four ways: industry funds via annual entry fees for lines in the regional trials; Government of Alberta contribution of the RVT coordinator; funding from parties with interest in regional crop performance data for Alberta producers; and in-kind contributions of time/seed/trial coordination/plot data from collaborators who do not receive monetary compensation. There are some differences in funding between the cereal and pulse crops.

According to Fedko, in 2017, the cereal and flax RVT program under ARVAC expects to generate $76,700 through a $1,300 annual testing fee charged for each variety being tested, excluding checks. In addition, a major contribution from the Alberta Wheat Commission along with funding from the Alberta Barley Commission, the Oat Growers, the Alberta Seed Growers and the Alberta Seed Processors (half goes towards ARVAC) helps to defray modest expenses to deliver the program.

“This revenue is used to fund regional variety trials at nine to 11 core sites in Alberta,” notes Fedko. “A few additional unfunded sites are also grown by interested parties, largely for extension purposes, and those data are available to us, provided that all quality controls are met. “

Fedko adds that in recent years, it has been generally accepted that $50 per plot is required to defray the direct costs of growing small plot variety trials. “We are not quite there yet, however. Thanks to the very generous contribution from the Alberta Wheat Commission, we are much closer to the goal than two years ago.”

The pulse crops regional variety-testing program has been sustainable thanks to $100,000 funding through the Growing Forward II program. The funding is a contribution from the industry and Alberta Pulse Growers, and is matched on a 3:1 basis by the federal government.

“Finally, the funds we receive are solely for the benefit of Alberta producers and do not leave the province,” says Fedko. “Moreover, of the $278,000 collected last year for the RVTs, less than $15,000 or five per cent was used for seed setup, shipping, administering the funds and maintaining the crop information system database.”

At the end of the day, industry contributions, including those from Alberta Wheat Commission, Alberta Barley, Alberta Oat, Alberta Seed Growers and Alberta Seed Processors are priceless, contributing to the inherent success of the RVTs.

Genome of Wheat Ancestor Sequenced

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Technological Breakthrough Will Help Decode Massive Bread Wheat Genome, Accelerate Wheat Breeding

Sequencing the bread wheat genome has long been considered an almost insurmountable task, due to its enormous size and complexity. Yet it is vitally important for the global food supply, providing more than 20 per cent of the calories and 23 per cent of the protein consumed by humans.

Now, an international team of scientists led by researchers at the University of California, Davis, has come a step closer to solving the puzzle by sequencing the genome of a wild ancestor of bread wheat known as Aegilops tauschii, a type of goatgrass.

In the study, published Nov. 15 in the journal Nature, researchers applied a combination of advanced technologies to generate a reference-quality genome sequence for Ae. tauschii, which is highly adaptable and tolerant of diseases. It is also the primary source of genes for the bread-making properties of wheat flour.

The findings will allow researchers to discover new genes that can improve wheat baking quality, resistance to diseases, and tolerance to extreme environmental conditions like frost, drought and salinity.

The effort has already had one practical result: the discovery of two new genes for resistance to a race of wheat stem rust to which there is virtually no resistance in wheat. The genes were transferred from Ae. tauschii into wheat and are now available to wheat breeders.

Piecing together the puzzle

Wheat and its wild ancestors have genomes much larger than humans, which makes sequencing difficult.

“When we started this project nearly two decades ago, there was no technology to sequence genomes of that size and complexity,” said Jan Dvorak, a leader of the project and professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. “This group of plants are unique because their genomes are just absolutely full of repeated sequences. We found more than 84 percent of the Ae. tauschii genome consists of closely related repeated sequences.”

Dvorak describes the project as like tearing up pages of a thick book and trying to piece it back together. “Only imagine that every sentence on the page is nearly identical. That was our task,” said Dvorak.

The technologies used by the researchers can be applied to any plant genome, so the implications extend beyond wheat.

Contributors to the research include scientists from USDA-ARS, Albany, California; John Hopkins University, Maryland; University of Georgia, Athens in the U.S.; and from Germany, Canada, China, U.K., France, and Switzerland. The research was funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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.

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.’”