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It takes a surge of lively discussions before those new, impressive varieties can be potentially planted for profit.

In 1933, talk of new varieties was likely the order of the day when the Associate Committee on Field Crop Diseases and the Associate Committee on Grain Research first met to review their findings. Thereafter, following committee expansions and name changes, the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC) eventually formed in 2007, acting as a convention of conversation about the development of improved cultivars of grain crops in the Prairies.

The PGDC’s recommending committees advise regulatory agencies regarding legislation and regulations on breeding, cultivar production and sector development; facilitate scientific discussions concerning research planned to improve the grain sector; and organize an annual meeting to talk about innovation.

The annual meeting is the organization’s greatest asset, according to PGDC Chair Tom Fetch.

“It’s great to have all these people come together, discussing the value of lines that may get registered,” he said. “Also, it’s a time to just talk about new ideas with producers, plant breeders and those in the industry. There are very few meetings like this that encompass the whole spectrum of those who represent different growing organizations.”

With respect to variety registration, the PGDC looks at varieties that may get picked up by the industry. As soon as those varieties are talked about at PGDC meetings, they have potential to go commercial.

AC Barrie was a variety that changed the landscape when certified sales began in 1997, becoming the dominant cultivar in 1998, said Fetch, who was the former chair of the disease evaluation subcommittee of wheat, rye and triticale.

“AC Barrie had half of the wheat acres in the late 1990s to early 2000s. It really got popular. That isn’t the case some of the time, where certain varieties make it through but don’t get used by producers. But when they do become popular, it’s great.”

The PGDC’s recommending committees are wheat, rye and triticale; oat and barley; pulse and special crops; and oilseeds.

The committees’ roles differ based on how they approach variety registration. Generally, they determine if candidates are suitable for registration in Canada, sending them to the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for final analysis.

“Committees have become more diverse, which includes private companies, seed companies and growers,” Fetch said.

Having representation from the entire value chain is essential, said Syngenta Canada’s Francis Kirigwi, the secretary of the wheat, rye and triticale committee.

“We need to have representation, as each member from the value chain plays a key role, talking about varieties, farmers and the market.”

Fundamentally, Kirigwi’s mantra is “farmer first, farmer last.”

“We talk to producers and other value chain participants to know what’s needed, not what’s fancy for the scientists,” he said.

Breeders in the oat and barley committee submit potential lines to the Canadian Grain Commission to be evaluated for quality, agronomy and disease. After two years of testing, varieties then go up for registration and committee members review the data. If a candidate outperforms or is equal to the check variety, it will be recommended to the CFIA for registration.

The wheat, rye and triticale committee basically operates the same as the oat and barley committee, Fetch said, adding that yield improvements of wheat have grown about 1.5 per cent per year.

“Think of that as compound interest,” he explained. “Compared to a decade ago, we’ve really improved variety performance. It’s all about beating benchmarks.”

Just like Fetch, Rich Joy of Canada Malting Corporation believes the annual meeting is vital.

“Everyone gets to discuss what’s working and what’s not working,” said Joy, who’s the chair of the oat and barley committee. “For example, brewers voice their concerns to maltsters, who are looking for certain traits from breeders.”

As the Canadian Wheat Board dismantled, many organizations and policy-makers have sought change in the variety registration system. That has left the PGDC to change its approach on variety registration in conjunction with the federal government’s work to alter the system.

In 2013, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz requested a renewed focus on research, innovation, competitiveness and market development from the recommending committees. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) engaged stakeholders through telephone interviews and by sending them the CFIA’s Issues and Options paper, which outlined four different approaches on how much oversight the government should have on the variety registration process.

Stakeholders had the option to maintain the current variety registration system, allowing for some flexibilities; streamline the system by placing all crops at the basic level, with the potential to move to an enhanced level; unify the system by placing all crops at the lowest order, eliminating the higher orders and continuing minimum government oversight; or have the government withdraw entirely from the system.

Thirty-nine per cent of the stakeholder submissions reflected they would like the current system to stay the same, allowing for flexibilitity. Twenty-six per cent said they would like to see all crops meet the minimum registration requirements with some independent merit assessment from the committees.

Despite most wanting to maintain the current system, the government proposed adjustments to the system based on the second option in the Issues and Options paper last October. One part of the proposal looks to reduce the three-tier crop system to a two-tier structure. Tier two, or the basic level of the structure, requires the committees to submit data that includes the description of the variety, pedigree, reference sample, declaration of area of adaption and proof of claims. The enhanced level, however, includes pre-registration testing and merit assessment through the recommending committees.

To the surprise of some, the 47 voting members of the pulse and special crops committee voted to move pulses from tier one (most stringent) to the basic level, meaning pulse crops would no longer receive merit assessment by the recommending committee once the government’s proposal is implemented.

“The decision will only affect pulses, not specialty crops,” said AAFC Research Scientist Parthiba Balasubramanian, chair of the PGDC’s pulse and special crops committee. “It’ll speed up the release of varieties by at least one year. Breeders will continue to do all the trials and provide data to the CFIA.”

Outlined in the proposal, the committees’ operating procedures will be changed, as will their structure, to include balanced representation from the value chain, allowing for variety selection to become increasingly market driven. The idea is to produce smaller, dynamic committees.

The proposed measures include: reducing merit standards; considering the registration of varieties after two years of positive test data; and accepting private and foreign data after the remaining quality and disease merit criteria and performance testing is streamlined. These impacts are expected to give clarity and predictability to investors who want to respond more quickly to market opportunities.

“The aim of those operating procedures is to provide guidance as far as they operate and how transparent they are,” said Giuliano Tolusso, chief of biotechnology and emerging technology issues at AAFC. “It’ll promote innovation in the development of varieties, improve competitiveness, and allow for producers to access varieties in a more timely manner.”

The government’s role in the variety registration process won’t change once the proposal takes effect, he added.

Tolusso said the recommending committees will likely integrate new guidelines in spring 2016, followed by the CFIA finalizing the proposal in the fall of that year. Implementing the proposed two-tier system also requires a change in legislation. However, the proposal may alter slightly, as Ritz has yet to formally announce the intended changes.

Even though the number of crops that require recommending committees and merit criteria will potentially be reduced as a result of the proposed variety registration changes, the PGDC will continue to operate.

“We will react accordingly, and change once Minister Gerry Ritz has made those calls,” Fetch said. “The committees will continue to advise the CFIA, and we will maintain our great conversations about new ideas and make sure the most promising varieties are presented to the CFIA.”


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