Major changes ahead for pulse crop breeding in Canada

The Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG) breeding agreement with the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre (CDC) is ending, and as it stands, will not be renewed.

SPG has invested upwards of 40 million dollars in pulse crop breeding with an additional 20 million dollars in genetics and gene sequencing or market development. Most of that money has gone to the U of S pulse crop breeding program, but there are also research projects across Canada and into the U.S.

As of this year, 129 varieties of pulse crops have been released royalty-free to pulse crop growers, 90 per cent of which are being used across Saskatchewan pulse acres.

Truth be told, I started to write this post back in July, after listening to a podcast episode produced by Saskatchewan Pulse Growers that outlined the future of pulse breeding in the province. I suspected that pulse breeding would change focus to protein development, and with the recent announcement from Protein Industries Canada, funding a project that will use artificial intelligence and data trust tools to breed new yellow pea varieties, my suspicion was confirmed. DL Seeds and SeedNet are partners in the project, and the results could mean good things for pulse crop producers.

The expansion of pulse crop acres in Canada has about tripled in the last 25 years or so. Because of this, and the ability to collect more royalties, pulse crops have garnered interest from outside parties in breeding and variety development. In the podcast episode, Dave Greenshields, director of research and development at SPG, expressed that external plant breeders may be a good thing and could lead to increased choice, speedier variety or trait development, accelerated breeding programs, and new the introduction of new genetics. The catch is that producers will have to pay royalties.

Pulse growers may be wondering what will happen to all of the previously released varieties that their levy dollars helped pay for. Well, they’re protected, and producers won’t have to pay royalties on them. Saskatchewan Pulse Growers will continue to do research and improve pulse crops for producers with more specific objectives. (If you didn’t catch the episode, those objectives are: resistance to root rots in peas and lentils, new resistance traits for peas, herbicide tolerance in lentils, and expanding acres of minor crops such as faba beans, chickpeas, and dry beans.)

With sound agronomic practices, existing varieties are valid options to potentially meet plant protein demands, provided that good crop rotations to avoid root rots and aphanomyces pressure are in place, which seem to be the biggest issue with pulse crops in recent years. In short, a healthy root system means increased nitrogen fixation efficiency, which corresponds directly with the end protein content in seed.

All of the previous hard work done by plant breeders can continue benefitting producers as there’s a pulse crop that can be grown in every soil zone, but if you want access to the newer varieties, you’ll have to get comfortable with paying to grow them.

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