Wheat Breeder Continues Making Inroads

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Not all wheat varieties are created equal. And no one knows that better than Harpinder Singh Randhawa.

The spring wheat and triticale breeder who works at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, has developed no less than eight high-yielding spring wheat cultivars and co-developed four high-yielding triticale cultivars for general production in Western Canada.

Randhawa’s passion for wheat breeding developed during his childhood on the family farm in Punjab, India. He attended Punjab Agricultural University, obtaining his BSc. Agriculture (Honours) in 1990 and his M.Sc. with a specialization in plant breeding in 1993. In 1994, he was appointed as assistant rice breeder at Punjab Agricultural University where he was part of a team whose objective was to develop high-yielding cultivars of rice. But his heart was set on wheat.

“I came to Canada in 1996 and graduated with my PhD from the University of Saskatchewan in 2002,” he says. Following a short working stint at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Randhawa took a position as post-doctoral fellow at Washington State University at Pullman, focusing his research on developing new wheat genomics tools, novel strategies for rapid introgression of traits using marker-assisted backcrossing, genetic and physical mapping of agronomically important traits in wheat and eventually developing improved wheat cultivars.

“Simply, I worked there for four and a half years developing breeding tools and doing genetic mapping,” he says. “I also set up a breeding program for incorporation of stripe rust and Clearfield herbicide resistance for the Pacific Northwest using marker-assisted breeding.”

Since 2007, Randhawa has been working as a spring wheat and triticale breeder with AAFC at Lethbridge. His prime focus of research is developing spring wheat cultivars that have better agronomic performance, excellent end-use quality, and resistance to various biotic and abiotic stresses in Western Canada.

His other research interests include the identification of new sources of disease resistance in wheat, genetic mapping, double haploid production and new breeding tools. He has published more than 60 research articles in international journals, he supervises many undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and continues to attend national and international conferences. In 2016, Randhawa received AAFC’s Gold Harvest Award for innovation, collaboration and service excellence.

Randhawa says his breeding program today focuses on two minor classes: Soft White Spring (SWS) and Canada Prairie Spring (CPS) wheats. “In soft white, our focus is developing new varieties with higher yield and improved resistance to various diseases,” he notes. “We’ve developed AAC Chiffon, AAC Indus and AAC Paramount. We also have this new one in the Special Purpose class, the highest-yielding variety in Western Canada — AAC Awesome. It’s a benchmark in pushing yield to the next level.”

With the closure of AAFC’s Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg in 2014, Randhawa’s plant breeding workload increased. To that end, he stresses that the most important highlight in CPS breeding today and going forward is the development of the unique P4 partnership involving Alberta Wheat Commission, Canterra Seeds and AAFC. This program recently yielded its first commercial wheat variety: AAC Crossfield, a Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPSR) wheat with a short, strong straw and high yield potential.

This first-of-its-kind partnership, totalling $3.4 million over five years, is aimed at combining the strengths of producers, along with the public and private sectors, to create improved CPSR wheat varieties for farmers. Breeding for this partnership is being led by Randhawa.

“We’ve entered into a new era for developing and collaborating with industry as a public, private and producer partnership,” he notes. “AAC Crossfield will be in farmer’s fields this year and another one we just registered is AAC Castle; and there’s a new one in the pipeline we’re very excited about.”

Plant breeding isn’t without its challenges, and according to Randhawa, one of the largest he sees is production challenges. “We face different stresses, such as Fusarium head blight for example. It’s moving big time. And although the last two years were okay, we know we’ll see more of this disease.”

Randhawa says one of the challenges associated with breeding for Fusarium head blight resistance is lack of a disease screening nursery in Alberta and limited access to nurseries in Manitoba. “If you can start screening early on, then you have a higher chance of selecting good material and discarding the ‘junk.’ But there are only so many breeding lines that can be screened in the nursery — and that’s my number one challenge.”

Another challenge, he notes, is free access to germplasm. “We are all in the public sector, and we’d like to have a reciprocal transfer of material,” he says. “Plant breeding is all based on diversity — if there’s no diversity and no germplasm, or if I can only use my own germplasm, then I’m going to have a bottleneck, I’m going to stagnate in my gene pool. We need to bring in new genetics and new traits to keep building diversity.”

A third challenge, says Randhawa, is within the minor classes of wheat, such as SWS and CPS. “Whether it’s winter wheat or CPS or soft wheat, we have maybe one million acres for each, more or less. Big classes such as CWRS (Canada Western Red Spring) or durum, they get a lot more attention. This translates over to more marketing attention as well, and that’s hurting the minor classes.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Cereals Canada, Alberta Wheat Commission and Canadian International Grains Institute certainly are doing their part to find consistent markets for the minor classes of wheat. And for his part, Randhawa continues pushing ahead to develop better cultivars for western Canadian growers. He believes new and improved technologies will help in that regard, but having “boots on the ground” on a day-by-day basis is still highly important in the plant breeding field.

“New technologies certainly offer some advantages, such as grains in efficiencies, new genomics tools and artificial intelligence,” he says. “Some of those things will tweak and change and help us, but it won’t happen overnight. There are many things we have to do the hard way, there’s no easy way or shortcut.

“Plant breeding is an interaction with everything — the growing environment, the diseases, the climate, the drought, rain, fertilizer. You can predict things with your computer models, but you can’t predict everything, and you can miss something you never thought of.

“We have to face these challenges and tackle them one at a time, to understand how it works. There is no magic bullet in plant breeding.”