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Are we in the golden age of crop research innovation?

If you think Alberta isn’t on the cutting edge of innovation, think again

In Canada, it is a national sport to claim that our country is trailing our competitors in innovation. There is no doubt that both government and industry spend a great deal on research—and there are serious questions about whether Canadians reap the economic benefit from these investments. However, it is my opinion that investments in agriculture have resulted in rapid adoption and tremendous returns both to producers and society.

Investments in agriculture have resulted in rapid adoption and tremendous returns both to producers and society.

We don’t have to look far for Canadian examples of new technology adoption. Western Canada led the world in understanding the science of conservation tillage—with innovative producers collaborating with (and sometimes pushing!) the research community. Everything came together: extension messaging, equipment development, appropriate inputs and producer creativity. We have seen new crops being adopted across the Prairies—canola, peas, lentils and others—based on a “biological fit” (which included lots of continued fine-tuning) with our environment. The arrival of transgenic crops in Western Canada created another tool to maximize yield and product quality.

So what is next on the list for crop innovation in Western Canada? We already see the future in other global crops. The first generation of transgenic crops was focused on biotic pests (weeds, insects and diseases). We now see a major focus on abiotic stressors like drought and heat, as well as improving the efficiency of the uptake and use of nutrients. The next major phase will likely be including quality traits that benefit processors and consumers (although this has already been a major focus in the improvement of canola oil since the crop was introduced to Canada).

What are some of the tools that molecular biologists and plant breeders are using to achieve these remarkable gains? Here are three:

Epigenetics: Plant scientists are learning that inheritance can occur based not only on genetics, but by genes being turned off and on by a range of events—and these changes (triggered by heat, drought or other external factors) can also be passed on to the next generation. This creates both complexity and opportunity in developing new traits that are expressed by crops.

Gene silencing: In the past decade, plant biologists have started to use their understanding of a phenomenon where certain types of RNA present (or introduced) in plants can shut down portions of a plant’s genetic code. This has been used to understand the huge amounts of data made available in genome sequencing by “knocking out” certain genetic segments to see what effect they have in a normal plant. The other use has been to kill viruses that invade plant cells. This function has been used to create virus immunity in commercial papaya (papaya ringspot virus) and potato (potato leafroll virus) cultivars. The same mechanism has been successfully used in barley (barley yellow dwarf virus).

Gene editing: In the early days of molecular biology, a number of methods were used to “introduce” new genetic material into an organism’s DNA. This included such subtle approaches as the blasting of DNA into plant tissue on the tip of a platinum projectile and hoping for the best. We now have methods to insert, replace or remove specific gene sequences accurately in specific locations of a plant’s genome.

The process of “stacking” traits uses this method to introduce multiple gene sequences into a variety with exquisite control over their insertion.

These are just three of the amazing things happening in crop innovation in canada. these tools will create crops that enable producers to supply the food, feed, fuel and fibre opportunities that a growing global population will demand.


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