Crop Scientists Help Crack the Durum Wheat Genome

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Curtis Pozniak is a wheat breeder at the University of Saskatchewan.

A year after University of Saskatchewan researchers played a key role in decoding the genome for the bread wheat variety Chinese Spring, they’ve done it again — this time in durum.

USask researchers played a key role in an international consortium that has sequenced the entire genome of durum wheat—the source of semolina for pasta, a food staple for the world’s population, according to an article published today in Nature Genetics.

“This ground-breaking work will lead to new standards for durum breeding and safety of durum-derived products, paving the way for production of durum wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality, and improved sustainability,” said Luigi Cattivelli of Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA).

In an exciting discovery, USask plant breeder Curtis Pozniak, along with University of Alberta scientists Gregory Taylor and Neil Harris, identified the gene in durum wheat responsible for accumulation of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal found in many soils. The USask team discovered how to significantly reduce cadmium levels in durum grain, ensuring the safety and nutritional value of the grain through selective breeding.

The durum wheat genome is four times as large as the human genome. The team has for the first time assembled the complete genome of the high-quality Svevo variety.

“We can now examine the genes, their order and structure to assemble a blueprint that will provide an opportunity to understand how the genes work and communicate with one another,” said Pozniak. “With this blueprint, we can now work quickly to identify genes that are responsible for the traits we select for in our breeding programs such as yield, disease resistance, and nutritional properties.”

The research involved more than 60 scientists from seven countries. The work was co-ordinated by Cattivelli and included corresponding authors Pozniak of USask and Klaus Mayer of the Helmholtz Zentrum München (Germany), as well as researchers Aldo Ceriotti and Luciano Milanesi of Italy’s national research council CNR and Roberto Tuberosa of the University of Bologna (Italy).

Durum wheat is mainly cultivated in Canada, Europe, United States, and South Asia, and remains a key crop for small farms in North and East Africa, as well as the Middle East.

“This is an exciting development for durum farmers as it will mean wheat breeders will be able to produce varieties with improved yields and resistance to disease, pests, and environmental stressors quicker than before,” said Laura Reiter, Chair of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission board of directors, who farms near Radisson, Saskatchewan.

“The investment in this research on behalf of Saskatchewan durum farmers is expected to lead to productivity gains and will allow them to capture opportunities in markets that desire the high-quality grain that Saskatchewan farmers produce,” she said.

Durum wheat, mainly used as the raw material for pasta and couscous production, evolved from wild emmer wheat and was established as a prominent crop roughly 1,500 to 2,000 years ago in the Mediterranean area.

The scientists compared the durum wheat sequence to its wild relative and were able to reveal genes that humans have been selecting over the centuries.  The team uncovered a loss of genomic diversity in durum wheat compared to its wild wheat relative, and they’ve been able to map these areas of loss and precisely recover beneficial genes lost during centuries of breeding.

“We can now see the distinct DNA signatures that have been so critical to the evolution and breeding of durum wheat, enabling us to understand which combination of genes is driving a particular signature and to maintain those target areas of the genome for future breeding improvement,” said Marco Maccaferri, lead author of the manuscript.

As pasta is a staple for the world’s population, industries are asking for more, safer, and higher-quality durum wheat.

“Having this durum wheat high-quality genome sequence enables us to better understand the genetics of gluten proteins and the factors that control the nutritional properties of semolina. This will help to improve pasta quality traits,” said Italian scientist Ceriotti.

Farmer participation needed for Team Alberta grain conditioning study

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Team Alberta is seeking farmer participation for a grain conditioning study that will assess on-farm energy consumption and efficiency of grain drying and conditioning systems.

The data obtained from the grain conditioning project will be a critical source of information for Alberta farmers regarding efficiencies, implementation or expansion of grain conditioning systems. Information gained will also be used for advocacy purposes such as improving programs and policies that seek to reduce the cost burden associated with on-farm grain conditioning in Alberta.

Interested farmers can expect a three-year commitment working closely with experts to install necessary measuring implements, perform data readings and manual logging throughout the drying periods. Participating farmers will have their energy-use monitored and gain valuable knowledge of their system’s efficiency rate, along with individualized recommendations to make operational decisions to reduce costs of their grain conditioning practices.

Team Alberta is seeking farmers who may be drying in the spring for a pilot project that will start in April 2019. For the study launch in July 2019, Team Alberta requires 40 systems and is seeking farmers who operate with one or more systems. All information collected in the study will remain confidential and only aggregated data will be used in final reports.

Team Alberta needs volunteers! Interested farmers are encouraged to complete the form in the link below. Upon completion, farmers will be contacted for an intake interview by our project partners at 3D Energy, an energy engineering, management and project development advisory company.

For further questions regarding the study please contact Shannon Sereda, government relations and policy manager with the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions at 403-219-6263 or [email protected].

APPLY NOW TO PARTICIPATE 

Source: Alberta Barley

Input wanted from Alberta fruit and vegetable producers

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Robert Spencer, commercial horticulture specialist at the Alberta Ag-Info Centre is asking fruit and vegetable producers to share direct market fruit and vegetable pricing information for Alberta.

He says that having price information is valuable for people of all experience levels, but especially oneself, to use as a reference against one’s own pricing and to compare against when calculating the cost of production and setting prices.

Spencer is looking for:

    • What Alberta producers charged for fruit and vegetable crops in 2018 – u-pick and pre-pick for farmers’ markets.
    • Prices changes for the coming season.
    • U-pick and pre-pick values, broken out for on-farm sales and farmers’ market prices for a range of fruit and vegetable crops.

Spencer will publish a per pound value or a per unit value depending on the crop and the number of data points he receives.

Go to the AB Direct Market Fruit/Veg Price Survey. For more information, contact Robert Spencer at the Alberta Ag-Info Centre, 310-FARM (3276).

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

WGRF commits $3 million to Agriculture Research Chair at University of Alberta

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Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) has announced a commitment of $3 million for a research chair in cropping systems at the University of Alberta to study interactions between plants, soils, crop management and the environment.

Western Canadian farmers face agronomic challenges that cut across multiple crops. A cropping systems Chair position will provide a dedicated scientist to work on farm-level management systems. Examples include inter-disciplinary considerations of crop, water and input use efficiency, soil management, economic benefits and control of pests (weeds, insects and diseases). The chair may also provide innovation related to whole-farm sustainability from economic, social and environmental perspectives.

“This position will provide much needed expertise in the area of cropping systems,” said Terry Young, board chair of WGRF. “Farmers don’t just grow one crop. Focusing research on a multi-crop systems approach will help lead to innovative farming practices and technologies that boost yield and crop quality while controlling crop diseases and insects, improving profitability and sustainability.”

“We are grateful for this new investment by WGRF to support hiring a new chair in our faculty,” said Stan Blade, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. “We appreciate the willingness of WGRF leadership and producers across Western Canada to invest in the future of our sector. The new chair will develop a program that will create new ideas through innovative research and will train the next generation of people needed by the industry.”

“WGRF is focused on taking a whole-farm approach to research. Strategic investments to increase agronomy research capacity in Western Canada is one of many approaches we are using,” said Garth Patterson, executive director of WGR. “We are very excited about having a research chair in cropping systems at the University of Alberta. This research chair will create incremental field crop research capacity in Western Canada, while providing the U of A the ability to advance its academic mission and catalyze new research initiatives in agronomy.”

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

Viewpoints: Looking for Win-Win Scenarios

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From the future of variety development, regional variety trials, and value capture models in Canada, to the importance of applied research groups in Alberta, Alan Hall, Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta’s executive director, shares his thoughts with Alberta Seed Guide on the shifts taking place within the province and the country.

ASG: Do you see any shifts occurring in seed variety development or regional seed trialing?

AH: Over time, we’re seeing more varieties being developed by private companies as opposed to government or university breeding programs — that’s an evolution. We’ve already seen this happen in canola. It’s beginning to happen in pulses, and we’re seeing it in cereals. We’re going to see more of that, particularly in the wheat area.

With that, will come changes to how variety trial work is financed. Right now, it’s financed from fees paid by variety owners or those who have distribution rights. To some degree, the trials are subsidized. For example, the applied research groups that I’m involved with, they don’t get full cost recovery on the trial work they do, but they still do it because it’s very useful to farmers in their areas, and these associations are owned and operated by farmers. However, I suspect over time they’ll want to move to a more self-sufficient business model.

Farmers want reliable, comparative data to help them select varieties. They want to see head-to-head data about different varieties from public and private breeding programs, to determine how they perform under the same conditions, relative to each other — that helps farmers with their selection process. Farmers value this consumer report style where there are neutral third parties doing the testing.

ASG: Why are the protocols put in place for regional variety trials so important?

AH: Protocols are important to keep the data that’s being collected consistent — so that you’re comparing apples with apples. For example, if organization number one designed their own trials and organization number two designed their trials differently, and company number three did them differently yet again, we wouldn’t be able to roll that data together and get anything meaningful out of it in terms of statistical analysis.

Having common protocols is critical for solid, dependable data that can be pulled together and analysed. It ramps up the quality and confidence in the results, otherwise all you’ve got is a collection of anecdotal information.

Every year a breeder science committee reviews the process and what adjustments need to be made, whether that’s protocol design or the operations of the program. There is scientific oversight to maintain quality.

ASG: How do you see the future shaping up with more varieties developed by private companies? What have other countries experienced having undergone similar shifts?

AH: If we look at the canola industry in Canada, what it has done is it has given farmers considerably more choices. The number of varieties available to them will be significantly larger than what’s currently there, which will increase the need for regional testing.

If we look at Australia, they have what’s called the National Variety Testing Program. Australia has university-, government-, and privately-generated varieties, which is a similar mix to what we have here. The program involves more than 600 sites across the country where varieties are trialed. What they have found is microclimates affect a variety’s performance. For example, when the same variety is grown at two different sites, say, 40 miles apart, that variety may perform better at one site simply because of changes in soil or the agroclimate.

From this, they have found niche opportunities for varieties in Australia. Having many varieties available improve the odds that farmers will find one that fits their niche. This is highly valued by Australian farmers, and they say is most helpful to their bottom lines in the variety selection process.

In Canada, we have a limited number of sites, and for some farmers they can be a hundred miles away. As private companies come on board with more breeding, in a perfect world, we will see a more robust regional variety trialing process than what we have in the province today, which is in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 sites. Perhaps in the future that might be 300 to 400 sites in Western Canada. I have a suspicion it could be a growth area in terms of trialing. How do you finance something like that? It takes more money. It takes more in-field delivery capacity to run the plots.

In Australia, the national variety testing program is funded through the Grains Research and Development Corporation. Farmers support the organization with a one per cent of sales levy, which is sort of like our checkoff system in Canada.

This farmer-run organization takes in about $150 million per year in checkoff money as well as another $40 million from the Australian government and $10 million generated from intellectual property. The organization funds a lot of research and development in various areas, such as agronomy, cropping practices and genetics, but one of the key benefits it provides is the regional variety trial testing. Farmers in Australia love it.

I’m not sure if, over time, something like this will emerge in Western Canada. There has been lots of coffee talk about that sort of an approach, but I don’t see any evidence that western Canadian farmers are moving in that direction at this point.

ASG: Do you have any thoughts about current and future funding models for agricultural research?

AH: One of the reasons for our trip to Australia was to look at how that country is organized and conducts its affairs. The Grains Research and Development Corporation model is great. Basically, what it has done is it has provided a good scale of operation — with $200 million you can do a few things. So, they’re not fragmented and it’s very well organized.

They have a good committee system from the local level right up to the national level, so there is farmer input and farmer guidance to GRDC activities all the way along. The board of governance is farmer-dominated, albeit there are other people on the board as well, but the majority are farmers, and a farmer is always the board chair.

It was interesting to see the GRDC’s ability to react quickly with funds. It was probably 15 years ago now that chickpeas were getting pretty common in Australia. It got to the point where farmers started experiencing some disease pressures in their crops. The GRDC simply stated, “We’re going to solve this problem.” They didn’t solve it with a small project here and there. The GRDC basically threw a few million dollars on the table, organized a team of plant researchers, and they solved the problem within two to three years.

They’re able to get things organized because of the scale they operate at. If that was Canada, you might see a whole series of small projects, and in ten years you’d still be spinning tires.

We don’t react as quickly because we don’t have the same set of resources to work with. When I say “we” I’m talking about all the stakeholders, not just any one group. Typically, if we have a problem we look to government — we knock on Ag Canada’s door. In Australia, with the GRDC model and significant revenues at hand, they’re not going to the government to ask for help, they’re going to the government saying “We’re doing this, and if you want to be involved we’d welcome you, but we’re going to do it anyway.” It’s a different mindset.

ASG: Could the Australian funding model work in Canada?

AH: Just because it works there doesn’t mean it’ll work here because people think differently and there are cultural differences, et cetera. You have to work it through. Right now, we operate on seed royalties. There’s a limited income from seed royalties that goes back into supporting breeding programs.

In Australia, they implemented end-point royalties. Farmers are paying royalties on all of the crops they produce with a variety as opposed to paying a royalty on the seed. That model has generated significant revenues for ramping up breeding programs. They have evolved from being relatively small — and running on nickels and dimes — to really strong breeding programs because they have a good revenue stream through end-point royalties.

When that system came in around the year 2000, had Australian farmers been able to vote on it, they would have turned it down. All they could see was money going out the door. But today, they would not want it taken away. Australian farmers say they love the system because they get better varieties quicker than they would without the end-point royalty system. Now they think of it not as a cost but as an investment. However, it took a decade to get there.

ASG: How do you think an end-point royalty model would be received here?

AH: The way farmers know it’s a good thing, is if they get a return in their pocketbooks from the investments they’re making. Unfortunately, it takes a leap of faith. You have to do it in order to see if you get a return on investment. I don’t know how they will get past that, but that’s where some of the discussions on this are going.

End-point royalties provide Australian seed companies with a better revenue stream, so they are ramping up their breeding efforts. Australian farmers are putting more money into the system, but over time they found they were getting better results in terms of varietal performance. Farmers told us they’re capturing value with their yields or disease resistance, or whatever it might be, and the companies are capturing value in that they have added revenues to operate breeding. It’s a win-win scenario.

However, when the system was implemented not everybody looked at it that way, but farmers have come around to that way of thinking after a decade’s experience. I think it will be the same thing in Canada. If Canadian farmers want to go down that road, then there’ll be some angst in the early years. They’ll wonder why all this money is going out with nothing coming back. However, if it’s well run, they’ll get returns. Over the longer term, they’ll wonder why they were so worried.

ASG: Where are farmers getting value for their money with respect to research in Alberta?

AH: The applied research groups in the province are filling a very critical piece. These groups are adapting and applying varieties and technologies so they work at the local level, bridging the gap between regional farm needs and the materials released by research stations and universities. The groups also work with farmers to develop better practices to deal with issues farmers are facing, like disease or drought.

Those organizations are owned by farmers and run by farmers and are providing some solid information back to farmers to incorporate into their operations.

The applied research groups are active on two fronts — on the crop front and the forage and beef front. Those organizations are running on nickels and dimes. We need to get behind these groups because they’re doing excellent work, especially in remote locations, such as Oyen, Falher and Fort Vermilion. And it could only get better if they have more resources to work with.

Those groups, such as the MacKenzie Applied Research Association and SARDA Ag Research, exist in various forms right across the province. Information, varieties or technologies from research stations or universities don’t always work in these regions without some adaptations.

For instance, these regions experience different climate conditions and have five or six hours of extra daylight in summertime — they’ve got more in common with northern Russia than they do the southern Prairies. Those research groups are developing information that’s very useful to farmers in those areas.

Farmers need to keep the foot on the gas directing these groups to make sure they’re working on the problems, barriers, or opportunities that affect their farm businesses. If they’re doing the right work for farmers, and they do it well, it seems to me we have another win-win situation.

 

 

7 Ways Seed-Applied Technologies are Evolving

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From boosting yield to helping you look at what you’re trying to accomplish on the farm, these products hold a lot of promise for the future.

Next-generation seed treatment technologies, non-chemistry-based seed treatment technologies, and the potential of biologicals and microbes are all driving the industry forward. Farmers need to keep in mind that they must not only keep up with the latest trends, but they also have to make sure they are asking the right questions. In order to do be able to do that, you need to know how these products are growing and evolving.

They may help boost yield.

Russell Trischuk, regional technical managerfor BASF Functional Crop Care in Saskatoon, Sask., says to get to the next plateau of yield, there’s a lot yet to be done with these technologies. “We’ve made big strides in yield over the past few decades due to effective fungicides, herbicides and insecticides plus a big contribution from genetics technologies. Still, the yield increase year over year isn’t what is used to be. Through on-seed technologies we can afford the plant the ability to manage abiotic and even some biotic stresses. We believe these products really will take us to the next level of production in our crops not only in Western Canada, but globally.”

They may help you rely less on chemistry.

John Kibbee is the owner of Kibbee ST Consultingin Guelph, Ont.He has a history of product development and technical management experience in seed treatments. He says in terms of the non-chemistry-based seed treatment technologies that are of interest to him, microbes for seed treatment — also called biologicals — can do some incredible things “and we’ve only scratched the surface.” Kibbee believes seed treatments have become a low-impact crop protection method, and microbes are the next evolution. “They’re green, have a better acceptance among consumers, but are complicated to formulate and turn into a commercial product that works consistently in the field.”

They may help enhance the effectiveness of the chemistry you’re using.

Trischuksays the use of biologicals in combination with chemistry allows them to plug holes in their crop protection systems and improve the crops they are putting it on. “A biological seed treatment is a technology where it’s easy to demonstrate these benefits,” he states, adding a chemical treatment is very effective for protecting the seed and plant as it gets out of the ground.

These products will help protect the plant during its most crucial stage.

“We know that within a two or three-week period after planting, the impact of that chemical treatment starts to wear off. This is where biological treatments come in,” says Trischuk. He explains that it takes some time for that microorganism to grow and colonize the root system or soil surrounding it, and due to that they see a delayed response in disease control. “This is right in line for when we see a chemical treatment begin to lose its efficacy,” he says. “We can bridge that gap that we see until later in the season when a foliar treatment can be applied.”

These technologies are changing how we think about seed treatments.

Kibbee says it took him a long time to adjust his thinking, as he spent his career trying to protect crops from microbes, but now he thinks about nurturing them and allowing them to survive. Looking to the future, what sort of microbes can we harness for use in seed treatments of the future? “Rhizobia is an obvious one for nitrogen fixation on legumes and is something we’re already seeing used. Azospirillum is popular in Latin America for nitrogen fixation on cereals,” says Kibbee.

Seed treatments are changing how manufacturers commercialize products.

“We now have a dedicated seed and soilborne pathogens screening program [at BASF],” Trischuk explains. “All molecules are screened not only for efficacy against foliar diseases, but against all major diseases attacking the seed and seedling in the soil. That’s in contrast to what we used to do, where we’d find an active ingredient that was a good fungicide, develop it for foliar use, and then look to see if there’s was a fit on seed or in soil.” He believes that change in philosophy has allowed them to identify a couple of molecules that they don’t think would have passed screening for a foliar fungicide but have been found to be very effective on seed or in soil.

They’ll help change how you make product selections. 

In the end, Trischuk says when comparing biological and chemical solutions — especially with regard to consistency of performance and expectation of results — farmers need to examine their expectations.Some of these products don’t have a requirement to submit efficacy data to receive registration,” he says. “Make sure you ask questions about the product. If there’s only been one trial, how credible is that data? At BASF we try to give a lot of info about what the grower can expect. If you want to know how something works, ask for data.”

Revolutionizing with CRISPR

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There are plenty of buzzwords surrounding the seed industry in 2018 — GMOs, gene-editing, organic and, of course, CRISPR. While we know a lot surrounding the debate of GMOs versus organic and whether or not GMOs and gene-editing overlap, one gene-editing technology still seems a mystery.

So, what exactly is CRISPR-Cas9, and why does it matter to the seed industry?

CRISPR is a genome editing system that could benefit the seed industry by allowing breeders to make minor changes into the genomes of existing high performance cultivars that will result in enhanced yield, ability to withstand stresses such as drought, heat and diseases and give crops the nutritional qualities that consumers are looking for.

“From an academic perspective, I like to think of plants as machines,” says Nat Graham, a postdoctoral associate from the Voytas lab at the University of Minnesota. “Everything runs on a code — DNA. What we’re focused on from a genome engineering perspective is how can we manipulate DNA for our gain?”

“With traditional transgenics, you would take a genetic sequence and randomly insert it into the DNA, which can disrupt the sequence,” Graham explains. “If it disrupts, you just keep trying again until it doesn’t cause a problem. If you want to turn a sequence off, you’d need to use mutagenesis. CRISPR-Cas9 is a new tool for genome engineering, and it allows breeders to go through the genome, find a sequence and precisely alter it.

Graham continues by explaining that currently, CRISPR is used to “turn off,” sequences through mutation. His current research focuses on how to insert new sequences by using CRISPR-Cas9, but he emphasizes that most products that come from CRISPR currently turn off mutations.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a protein found in bacteria that were under attack from bacteriophages. It can recognize sequences of invaders and cut the DNA sequences apart. Researchers discovered that the proteins could be programmed to recognize a new sequence and introduce mutations site-specifically into the DNA sequence.

There are a few different ways that CRISPR works to “turn-off,” sequences. Graham explains that one way is to alter the sequence, thus the gene no longer makes sense. If the gene sequence doesn’t make sense, it wouldn’t make the product anymore.

Another way to “turn-off,” the sequence is by completely removing it, which would make the sequence no longer functional. It would stop making the product, because it would no longer be there.

Finally, you could alter current genes. In this idea, instead of traditional mutagenesis, where a researcher would create a desirable sequence, find the sequence to be changed and replace it with the new, more desirable sequence, a researcher could find a specific base pair in a sequence and alter it completely. Graham likes to use sentences as examples for this idea: if you had the sentence “the cat was fat,” and you wanted to change it to “the rat was fat,” CRISPR would allow a researcher to find the sentence and change the “c” to an “r” to create the desired sentence.

Another example he uses is that CRISPR directly edits gene “text,” while genetic modification is more like inserting a new chapter into a book.

“Traditional breeding takes advantage of natural mutations to find new traits,” Graham says. “The difference is we’re causing mutations to happen in the way we choose. We’re accelerating the natural process.”

“CRISPR is new from an academic perspective — it hit the science journals in 2012,” Graham says. “We’re still learning about it and how to make it better. There’s a lot we still need to learn.”

CRISPR is also beneficial to the seed industry because it won’t be regulated like GMOs. Gijs van Rooijen, chief scientific officer of Genome Alberta, says that CRISPR regulations are similar to traditional genetics across Canada.

“If you’re making minor changes such as deletions or insertions, it isn’t different than anything from traditional breeding,” says van Rooijen.

In Canada, crops are regulated through plants with novel traits (PNT). Regardless of how the plant was created, be it through traditional breeding or gene-editing, the government must ask questions about whether or not the trait is novel and if it would make the plant more ‘weedy’ or difficult to control.

“Whether crops are generated through traditional breeding, GMOs, or gene-editing, they will be looking at the risks associated in relation to human health, animal health and environmental health,” van Rooijen says.

“The government also takes into account trade risks when dealing with a new cultivar,” van Rooijen says. “Right now, if you’re growing a GMO variety, chances are it’s going to cause more issues with your trading partners, particularly in Europe. However, if you’re growing traditional varieties, it’s usually okay trade-wise.”

Currently, one of the only gene-edited varieties starting to be marketed in Canada is from Cibus’s Rapid Trait Development System. Developed in 2015, Cibus has begun trialing a sulfonylura (SU) canola trait, which will be marketed with their Draft herbicide. Together, they can control key weeds such as common buckwheat, common ragweed and redroot pigweed.

“With the advances in CRIPSR and gene-editing technology, the technology and regulations are actually straightforward, so smaller companies are encouraged to begin developing their own products,” van Rooijen says. “CRISPR is actually giving smaller companies the ability to compete with larger companies.”

Van Rooijen says that currently, CRISPR research in crops is focused around developing varieties similar to GMOs. However, in using CRISPR in North America, these crops can be regulated as non-GMO. In particular, research has been focused on herbicide tolerance.

“You can imagine that a lot of companies are beginning to look at traits that focus on higher nutritional quality, such as high-oleic soybeans or high-fibre wheat,” van Rooijen says. “These varieties are likely to be seen in the next couple of years. Since companies can make edits to the existing genome, varieties can be developed much faster, but current research focuses on traits that have already been approved.”

Currently, through traditional breeding, it takes around seven years to create a new desirable variety. With genetic modification, it still takes around 10 to 12 years due to regulatory barriers and high costs. Currently, researchers believe genome editing will only take around three to five years, since gene-editing is more precise than other breeding methods.

However, the best part about CRISPR would be it wouldn’t change the way growers have been farming already.

“Growing gene-edited crops won’t be much different from growing GMO varieties,” van Rooijen says. “By providing the available traits, it means growers can use herbicides only when needed, which is better for the crops and the environment. CRISPR will provide similar benefits that GMOs already bring, however they’ll be regulated differently.”

CRISPR could provide growers with improved disease resistance, drought tolerance and higher yields, while providing consumers with better food quality, nutrition and a longer shelf life.

Van Rooijen also believes CRISPR has the potential to expand grower’s export markets. “Growers have the potential to expand into markets where people are weary of GMOs,” he says.

In addition, since CRISPR crops are easier to create than GMOs, van Rooijen says there’s a possibility that the seeds might be sold at a reduced rate in comparison to other GMO traits.

However, van Rooijen says the biggest benefit CRISPR will have is an environmental impact.

“There’s no question that consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of how we grow our food,” van Rooijen says. “We need to grow more efficient crops. With CRISPR, we can grow the amount of food we need to feed the population, but we also increase our efficiency while reducing stress on the environment.”

“CRISPR and gene-editing technologies are revolutionizing the way novel traits can be created,” says van Rooijen. “The positive effects outweigh the negatives, and we must continue to find the consumer’s support so that we can provide the world with better opportunities for growers, consumers and the environment. It’s almost irresponsible to not take this opportunity.”

We’ve come a long way in agriculture. From crop domestication to cross breeding to plant breeding based on genetic information to GMOs, it seems the natural way to go from here is target breeding. Whatever may happen with these technologies, it seems one thing is for certain: CRISPR and gene-editing are paving the future of agriculture.

“Pardon Me – Do You Have Any Grey Poupon?”

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The first hybrid brown mustard and a whopping 61 other cultivars were put forward for registration at this year’s meeting of the Prairie Grain Development Committee.

In some ways, this year’s meeting of the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC) belonged to the mustard plant.

Held at the end of February 2018 in Banff, Alta., the PGDC’s Prairie Recommending Committee for Oilseeds (PRCO) put forward only one line for registration, but it’s a major one — the first hybrid brown mustard ever released.

B3318 has significantly higher (24 per cent) yield than the check variety, Centennial Brown. Developed in the breeding program of Bifang Cheng, the condiment mustard breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Saskatoon, it’s aimed at the European market, where brown mustard is used to produce Dijon mustard.

But according to Kevin Hursh, executive director for the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission, it opens up a wealth of possibilities for the Canadian mustard industry.

“A 20 per cent yield boost over the check variety is hugely significant for growers. The question will be if can we produce hybrids that present a good value proposition for growers,” he says. “Preliminary information seems to indicate that yes, we should be able to do that. Companies specialize in hybrid production both in Alberta and B.C., and with winter nurseries in Chile, the industry should be able to help this take off.”

PGDC acts as a forum for the exchange of information relevant to the development of improved cultivars of grain crops for the western Canadian Prairies and advises regulatory agencies about legislation and regulations governing grain breeding, cultivar production and sector development.

This year, a whopping 62 cultivars in four different crop categories were recommended for registration, delivering even more options for stakeholders throughout the agriculture sector and beyond.

Among those cultivars were 23 pulse lines put forward by the Pulses and Special Crops Committee (PRCPSC). As demand for pulses goes up, breeding for new pulses to satisfy consumers is booming along with it, notes Peter Frohlich, pulses and special crops project manager for the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi).

He addressed the PRCPSC this year to unveil some recent work done by Cigi in the area of pulse flour. Under the Advancing Pulse Flour Processing and Applications project, Cigi is continuing the development and optimization of pulse flours as high-quality food ingredients to further their commercial use in pulse-based products.

“One of the biggest obstacles for the pulse market is flavour. Pulses are extremely nutritious, however consumers often don’t like the flavour of them when used in certain products,” Frolich says.

According to Frohlich, as demand for ingredients like pulse flour goes up, processors will be looking for ingredients that add good flavour — or none at all — to their products. That’s where breeders involved with PGDC come in, Frohlich adds. “Addressing flavour issues around pulse ingredients starts at the breeding level.”

As processors look for ingredients with qualities like improved flavour profiles, breeders continue to deal with new challenges and opportunities presented by new technology. The theme for this year’s PGDC plenary session was disruptive change and transformational technology. Speakers included Tim Sharbel, professor in the plant sciences department at the University of Saskatchewan, and Erin Armstrong, industry and regulatory affairs director for Canterra Seeds.

Sharbel spoke about launching an apomixis research program at the Global Institute for Food Security, located at the University of Saskatchewan. Apomixis is a naturally occurring phenomenon in certain types of plants like St. John’s wort and Kentucky bluegrass, which reproduce seed asexually, whereby all offspring are genetically identical to the mother plant.

It isn’t found in any food crops, but if apomixis could be successfully introduced into agriculture, Sharbel says it could be a disruptive technology. Essentially, it would enable the immediate fixation of any desired genotype and lead to faster, simpler breeding schemes.

“People have been studying the biology of these asexual plants and animals for 100 years or so, but it’s only 20 or 30 years ago that people started thinking about it in terms of agriculture,” he says. “There are a number of laboratories around the world studying apomixis. It’s worth billions of dollars if we can get it working.”

Armstrong’s presentation focused on two value creation models for cereals she has been working on with Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission. Together they co-chair the Value Creation Working Group (VCWG), a sub-committee within the federal government’s Grains Roundtable (GRT). It was formed in 2016 to inform the federal government as to the potential for a new royalty system for cereals. (See page X to read more about value creation in cereals)

“The idea that value creation and capture could be a part of Canadian agriculture in the future is something that could really change how things work. We could see an influx of new investment in breeding and new opportunities for other companies and organizations to be involved,” says Mitchell Japp, PGDC chairperson.

“It’s at the idea stage right now and we don’t know how it will play out, but it will ultimately affect both the breeding side and the seed development side.”

BY THE NUMBERS

The breakdown of cultivars recommended for registration at this year’s PGDC meeting is:

PRCWRT:

  • 14 Canada Western Red Spring
  • 1 Canada Northern Hard Red
  • 1 Canada Western General Purpose
  • 1 in Canada Western Special Purpose
  • 2 Canada Western Special Purpose winter wheat
  • 3 Canada Western Durum Wheat
  • 2 spring triticale
  • 1 winter triticale
  • 1 fall rye

PRCOB:

  • 3 oat
  • 7 barley

PRCO: 1 mustard

PRCPSC:

  • 5 dry bean
  • 6 lentil
  • 8 faba bean
  • 4 field pea
  • 1 buckwheat

 

Is Intercropping The Future?

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Lethbridge-based Eric Bremer, head of R&D for Western Ag Innovations, has learned a thing or two about intercropping during his time researching the practice.

“Intercropping can have substantial benefits, but not always. You have to have some good-sized benefits come out of it in order for it to be widely adopted. Growers want to know it’s going to work for them before taking it on,” Bremer says. He’s currently conducting research trials intercropping canola with pulses like pea and lentil.

For producers considering intercropping for the first time, Bremer says it’s important to “start small,” and get comfortable with the process before growing whole quarters.

Accidents Happen

Derek Axten started intercropping by accident in 2009, when he seeded a field of brown mustard into lentil stubble. When he harvested the field, he expected to see an overall loss. Instead, the lentil yield matched that of his other lentil fields — and he got a great load of mustard to boot.

“I thought, ‘What if we do this intentionally?’” says Axten, who together with his wife Tannis was named Saskatchewan’s Outstanding Young Farmer in 2017. “It took us until 2011 to get to an organized intercrop. Since then, we’ve always seen a net benefit.”

On their land near Minton and Milestone, Sask., the Axtens grow peas/canola, flax/chickpea, flax/lentil, lentil/mustard, and forage pea, maple pea or winter pea with mustard or canola.

In terms of land equivalency ratios, or the amount of monocropped land needed to achieve yields equal to those of an intercropped system at the same management level, the Axtens average somewhere between 1.25 and 1.3, although they have seen years over 1.5. In 2017, some of their intercropped fields were a wash. “But averaging with the other years we’re still ahead of the game,” he says.

This is in part owing to the fact that they don’t use any nitrogen (N) on their intercrops, because N is supplied by the pulse in each combination. Added to this, disease and insect pressure is so low on their intercropped fields that they almost never have to spray.

It’s not known exactly why most intercrops see a reduction in disease and insect pressure, according to Scott Chalmers, diversification specialist for Manitoba Agriculture’s Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO). But the data is there to prove this is often the case.

Chalmers has been studying intercrop mixtures since 2009, mostly focusing on yield and nitrogen and phosphorous interactions in pea/canola (or peanola) intercrops.

Intercropping with canola has major benefits for peas: because peas, which typically fall to the ground, are held up by the canola, they experience less disease pressure and pea quality is higher. They are also much easier to harvest. “You’re not having to drag your combine knife through the ground,” says Chalmers. “It’s easier on the equipment.”

Axten says intercropping is an attempt to mimic what happens in a “highly functioning, highly diverse” native ecosystem, where some 120 or more species might coexist. “We’ve been growing two crops together, which is nothing like it is in a native system. But we’ve been seeing an improvement with two crops over one, and since then we’ve added clovers as companion crops.”

But intercropping is not about altruism for the Axtens: it’s a business decision. “We’ve never ever had less profit from intercropping,” he says. “And with the reduction of inputs you’re carrying so much less risk. It’s about how much money you keep as well as how much you make.”

Assessing the Risk

But any attempt to intercrop can make growers quickly realize just how many stumbling blocks they may run into. The process can be incredibly detailed.

Bremer has collaborated on his intercropping project with Alberta Agriculture agronomy research scientist Doon Pauly. In this particular experiment, Pauly notes that the pulse crop was the primary one that researchers were attempting to grow, with canola being the “bonus” crop. For the purposes of the research, Pauly and Bremer had to carefully manage the canola through low seeding rates and fertilizer placement and timing, to ensure it didn’t take over the pulse crop.

For seeding, Pauly and the team ran their pulse seed through the seeding discs and the canola seed through sideband fertilizer discs in a single pass.

“The fertilizer component of the current project is really interesting,” says Pauly. “We applied a known fertilizer volume at constant pressure to the entire plot using four drip irrigation lines for the eight rows of pulse and eight rows of canola.”

Fertility treatments were applied within days of seeding (theoretically N at this time should limit the pulse crop’s ability to fix N and also feed canola, making canola very competitive early) or about a month after seeding in-crop. Because the fertilizer solutions were enriched with low levels of 15N, with isotope analyses of plant material the researchers were able to determine if this surface-applied N was picked up by the pulse crop or the canola crop.

There’s a lot yet to be discovered when it comes to intercropping, Pauly says.

“Even with seeding, it’s not like you can just throw canola seed into your air cart with a pulse crop. If they separate out, you may not get the uniform stand you may desire,” Pauly says.

“Harvest is a challenge, too. If you don’t have good synchronization between crop maturities, you can run into problems. You start intercropping and you think, ‘Whoa, I didn’t anticipate that.’ All of a sudden, you start realizing there are certain things you can no longer do that with monocropping wouldn’t be an issue.”

Intercropping is indeed riskier: according to Colin Rosengren, a founding member of Three Farmers, a Saskatchewan-based business that manufactures camelina oil, it’s hard to get crop insurance on intercrop mixtures. In Saskatchewan, producers can get specialty crop insurance on a portion of their intercrops, which guarantees producers the average on their other insured crops. But Rosengren, who intercrops perhaps three quarters of his 6,000-acre operation, says it isn’t worth it for him.

In fact, he believes most producers who intercrop do not carry crop insurance at all. It’s a catch-22 for the industry, as insurers generally won’t offer insurance until a minimum number of acres are intercropped in a province.

“Acres are very significant, but many aren’t insuring, so the numbers officially aren’t there,” says Rosengren.

In terms of harvesting and selling intercropped mixtures, Chalmers says producers might need to modify equipment or buy rotary harrows or a cleaner and will need at least two working augers. “Harvesting takes quite a bit of coordination,” he says.

Bremer agrees.

“It requires more equipment, and for growers to make that investment, there has to be clear benefit.”

Another risk is if buyers are not okay with a small amount of contamination if seed from another crop is found in a producer’s sample, Chalmers points out. “There’s no way you can clean out every canola seed in pea,” he says. “There’s always going to be half a per cent kicking around.”

Planning for Success

Alberta’s Greg Stamp, director of seed sales for Stamp Seeds based in Enchant, agrees that getting into intercropping could present a number of challenges for growers. Although Stamp Seeds helps clients with cover crop projects, they have yet to experiment with intercropping but have seen some of the work that Bremer and his team have done.

“There is definitely potential for this production practice in the future on the Prairies. When you look at the benefits to producers, with reduced pesticide and fertilizer usage, you can see how it could be an attractive way to diversify your operations,” Stamp says.

“As seed growers we are multiplying and growing seed crops on our farm or in the local area. We really get to know the characteristics and quirks – good and bad – of the varieties we sell and that can be valuable information for producers trying intercropping for the first time. When you know how a variety will perform in your local area sometimes that can make all the difference.”

Stamp notes also that using certified seed, which comes with a guarantee of health and vigour, will further manage agronomic risk in producers’ intercropping efforts as you are starting with a high-quality seed product.

When Rosengren and his Three Farmers partners first started intercropping, they ran strip trials to compare intercropped and monocropped systems, but they soon abandoned the practice because the benefits were so obvious.

“There are a million products that offer two extra bushels of yield per acre, but that’s pretty hard to measure,” he says. “When you’re talking 25 to 30 per cent extra yield, it’s significant enough to measure. It was dramatic enough that we quit doing the strips.”

Axten also believes intercropping is the way of the future for Western Canadian farming.

“I think of all the problems that have happened in agriculture, things that have come to light in the last 15 years. We keep trying to do this monocrop thing, but I don’t think we’re showing that it works very well.”

By Julienne Isaacs & Marc Zienkiewicz

 

Flipping The Switch

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Thanks to Canadian researcher Igor Kovalchuk, the Canadian Prairies could one day be dotted with fields of medicinal poppies, a major cash crop opportunity. (Photo: University of Lethbridge)

For global researchers studying epigenetics, looking at the surface of the genome could be the key to discovering the next big thing in plant and seed engineering.

Classical genetics has been with us for a long time, ever since Gregor Mendel put forward his laws on the basic mechanisms of heredity in the 19thcentury.

Classical genetics has led to wondrous developments in the area of agriculture, including GM and gene editing technologies. And now, another area of study is on the cusp of changing our ideas about plant function even more.

Epigenetics, although has existed as a concept for nearly eight decades, is becoming a new buzzword that causing lots of chatter in plant breeding and seed circles, and for good reason.

“Epigenetic technologies are on the cusp of being industry-ready. Unlike techniques such as CRISPR, it’s not quite there yet — but very close,” says Michiel Van Lookeren Campagne, head of seeds research at Syngenta.

A field like epigenetics holds great promise for companies like Syngenta, he says, which invests a lot of time and money in dealing with the regulatory hurdles that invariably come with breeding plants that have had their genetic codes altered in some way.

Flipping Switches

Epigenetics comes from the Greek root word epi, meaning “on” or “on top of.”

“Epigenetics essentially sits on top of the layer of classical genetics, which has been the basis of all breeding programs,” says Van Lookeren Campagne.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence. Epigenetic changes in plants do not occur as a result of any changes to the plant’s DNA, but as a result of other factors like changes to chromosomes that affect gene activity and expression.

Basically, Van Lookeren Campagne explains, epigenetic changes occur when various “switches” in DNA are flipped on and off, triggering different reactions within the plant. He notes that epigenetics as a field really took off in the 1990s when Dutch and American molecular biologists breeding purple petunias obtained a number of unexpected results that were difficult to explain.

They were trying to increase the color intensity of the petals in petunias by introducing a gene inducing the formation of red pigment in the flowers. But instead of intensifying the color, this treatment led to a complete loss of color and the petals turned white. The mechanism causing these effects remained elusive untilAndrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello discovered the cause, earning them the Nobel Prize in Physiology for Medicine for 2006.

Fire and Mello deduced that double-stranded RNA can silence genes, that this RNA interference is specific for the gene whose code matches that of the injected RNA molecule, and that RNA interference can spread between cells and even be inherited.

In other words, genes can be turned on and off like light switches, producing different reactions within a plant without altering the plant’s genetic code in any way.

New Frontier

Those epigenetic changes are ushering in a new frontier for the seed industry as a result. In March, Epicrop Technologies Inc., a company co-founded by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and epigenetics pioneer Sally Mackenzie, announced it had secured US$3.2 million in funding. This funding will be used to further develop epigenetic technology with a focus on large increases in yield and stress tolerance in crops.

“We’re very excited to have previous and new investors on board who appreciate the game changing potential of this technology,” said Michael Fromm, chief executive of Epicrop Technologies.

In the company’s field and greenhouse trials, epigenetically improved plants — soybeans, tomatoes, sorghum and Arabidopsis— show increased yields and stress tolerance.

“Increasing yield and stress tolerance are key goals of most seed companies. Epicrop’s method has the potential to provide these traits by adding epigenetic information directly to the seeds of commercial varieties without adding any genetic material. The unique features of this method readily fit into traditional commercial breeding and seed production methods to facilitate company adoption of this system.”

Poppies on the Prairies

In Alberta, University of Lethbridge Department of Biological Sciences researcher Igor Kovalchuk has gained the reputation as a world leader in epigenetics.

His goal: to produce hardier crops that are increasingly resistant to stress and even able to detect pollution. This capability, in turn, will help to improve the efficiency, profitability and overall success of farms.

Thanks to Kovalchuk, in fact, the Canadian Prairies could one day be dotted with fields of medicinal poppies. He is currently working with a Canadian biotech company that plans to develop a market for the high thebaine poppy industry in Canada. A significant cash crop opportunity, high thebaine poppies are used to create valuable medicines, but unlike their traditional counterparts, cannot easily be converted into heroin.

Kovalchuk is also a driving force behind the establishment of the Alberta Epigenetics Network, the first epigenetic network in Canada.

“Plants have an amazing capacity to respond immediately to stress and to propagate this response so future generations can be better prepared,” he says.

One of the ways plants do this, of course, is via epigenetic changes.

For Van Lookeren Campagne, the doors yet to be unlocked by epigenetics are many, and he’s excited as new research initiatives are undertaken to bring epigenetic technologies to market.

“We now understand the machinery that epigenetic changes are related to, and we’re able to tune that machinery. Now we have to find the applications we can deploy this toward. It holds a lot of potential and promise.”

Editor’s Note: This article was produced with files from Marc Airhart (University of Texas at Austin), Justin Raikes (Epicrop Technologies), Dana Yates (University of Lethbridge)