Yell Into the Phone: More Support for Public Plant Breeding!

Public breeding (for plants, that is) is not something you’d imagine the public yelling into a telephone about, telling their elected officials support for public plant breeding must absolutely be part of the next federal or provincial budget, or else.

But stranger things have happened. For example, who would have thought people would get so riled up about other matters that concern food production…such as bees? Or bobolinks? Or trans fats? Special interest groups often succeed at making consumers care about things that they might otherwise not, or things they take for granted.

Publicly funded plant breeding at certain Canadian universities and some government labs fits that bill, too. On the surface, it sounds kind of ho-hum, but it serves an incredibly vital role in all aspects of not just agriculture, but food as well.

Think about it this way: No plants mean no food, for either livestock or humans. It’s pretty simple.

And no new plant varieties means crop farming stagnates. That’s not the way to greater profitability, let alone feeding nine billion people.

Ten years ago a group committed to promoting an appreciation of the role of plant variety development in modern agriculture created a program called Seed of the Year.

The effort, led by SeCan and the University of Guelph, was designed to recognize exceptional Canadian plant varieties that developed through public breeding efforts, such as those supported mainly at Guelph by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

SeCan helps the university get new plant varieties in the hands of farmers, by licensing them and making them available to seed companies. This system has been instrumental in making Guelph the country’s most efficient and inventive university – Guelph leads the country in invention disclosures per faculty member, and spends a fraction of what most universities spend on invention disclosures.

Since the early 1970s, royalties generated from plant variety development supported by the province at the University of Guelph have reached $10 million. The province turns around and channels those royalties back into plant research.

One of the top plant varieties ever developed at the University Guelph, or anywhere in Canada for that matter, is called OAC (for Ontario Agricultural College) Bayfield. It came onto the scene 20 years ago, and was a standout in areas such as high yield, dependability and consistency – so much so, that while most plant varieties have a longevity of just a few years before they’re replaced by a superior variety, Bayfield endured for a full decade, and then some.

Even today OAC Bayfield is still grown in limited quantities, but its main legacy is that its genetic base has been used to develop several more new varieties that have become standards in Ontario soybean fields, including OAC Wallace, which is expected to even surpass the contributions of OAC Bayfield.

That remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure – OAC Bayfield significantly helped soybean production in Ontario grow to more than 2.5 million acres, making soybeans Ontario’s biggest field crop. On Wednesday night, in recognition of its 20th anniversary, OAC Bayfield was named Seed of the Year. Those who developed it, marketed it and planted it gathered in Guelph Wednesday night to sing its praises.

But without new plant breeders coming into the fold, varieties such as this will not be developed. Young people need to be encouraged and actively recruited to become plant breeders. And once they enter the profession, there needs to be support for them to pursue new varieties.

That’s what crop producers need to be telling into a telephone about to elected officials. A stagnant crop sector is not an option.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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