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A roundup of wheat research that will bring new varieties suited for the Canadian Prairies

March 24, 2017

According to Genome Canada’s website, wheat accounts for 20 per cent of all calories consumed throughout the world, and as global population grows, wheat productivity needs to increase by 1.6 per cent each year. At the same time, climate change is causing temperature and precipitation changes that challenge established patterns. So there is also a need to sustainably respond to environmental changes to ensure the long-term stability of the wheat industry.

This preamble identifies the impetus behind the flagship project of wheat research in Canada: the Canadian Triticum Applied Genomics (CTAG2) project, which is being led by Dr. Curtis Pozniak of the University of Saskatchewan.

This $8.8 million project, funded by Genome Canada, the Western Grains Research Foundation, and the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta wheat commissions, has already delivered its first phase in early 2016, when researchers announced they had sequenced the bread wheat and durum wheat genomes.

The work involves scientists from four other Canadian research institutions: The National Research Council of Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the University of Guelph, and the University of Regina. The CTAG2 team is working closely with the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium to understand the wheat genome and develop genetic markers and predictive genetic tests to make Canadian wheat breeding programs more efficient.

Through the use of these genomic technologies, breeders will have access to thousands of DNA markers that will allow them to speed up the process of developing new wheat varieties that have improved agronomic performance, are more resistant to diseases and pests, resilient to heat and drought stress, and that offer improved end-use qualities.

Research partnerships

Canadian wheat research is booming across the Prairies, attracting both private and public investment, and encouraging partnerships and collaborations between governments, wheat commissions and private companies.

An example is the 4P (Public, Private and Producer Partnership) Canada Prairie Spring (CPS) partnership between the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC), CANTERRA SEEDS and AAFC, which provides funding to develop improved varieties of Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPSR) wheat at the Lethbridge Research Centre. Since its inception in 2015, the 4P CPS partnership has produced two new varieties cultivars and has several lines currently in registration trials with promising agronomic traits. A share of royalties for lines developed under the program will be reinvested back into public breeding programs through the AWC.

Canterra Seeds also has a new cereal breeding and development partnership with French farmer cooperative, Limagrain Cereals Research Canada, and plans to build a facility in Saskatoon.

Sask Wheat has committed more than $1.9M over the past two years to support wheat research projects through the Saskatchewan Agriculture Development Fund (ADF), co-funded by AWC, WGRF, the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers and SaskCanola.

The Agricultural Funding Consortium, a partnership of 13 organizations, has created a one-window approach to agricultural research and development funding in Alberta. Through this mechanism, AWC has committed over $3.5 million to genetic and agronomic research since 2013. Projects from this initiative have included investigations into cold tolerant spring wheat, improving resistance to pests and disease and optimizing management practices such as nitrogen, fungicide and plant growth regulator applications.

Saskatchewan grows most of the durum wheat in Canada, so it’s not surprising that the Sask Wheat and SeCan are jointly investing up to $3.5 million in the CDC’s durum wheat development program over the next 10 years. The AWC is funding a project with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry looking at the impact of fertilizer and fungicide rates and timing on yield of different varieties of wheat, as well as assessing the effect of plant growth regulators to improve standability. Other priorities for research include disease and pest resistance to things such as wheat midge, as well as developing varieties with better cold tolerance.

Hybrid wheat facility opens

BayerCrop Science Inc. is putting serious investment into hybrid wheat, opening a $24 million, wheat research facility at Pike Lake, south of Saskatoon last summer, which will focus on the development of hybrid wheat. The cutting-edge facility brings together multiple aspects of wheat breeding into one centralized location and includes an analytical lab, pathology research space and laboratory with an accompanying 2,550 square feet of environmentally controlled, off-site greenhouse space. The station also has 480 acres for field breeding and evaluation trials.

“The opening of this facility represents a monumental investment into the research and development of new and innovative hybrid wheat technologies designed specifically to help Canadian growers overcome some of their biggest cropping challenges, so they can successfully compete in the global grains market.” said Dr. Marcus Weidler, head of Seeds Canada for BayerCrop Science in a June 2016 press release.

The Bayer Wheat Breeding Station will focus on the creation of new CPS and Canadian Western Red Spring wheat hybrids that will be commercially available to Canadian growers within the next six to eight years.

The Canadian Wheat Alliance (CWA) is an 11-year commitment between AAFC, the University of Saskatchewan, the province of Saskatchewan and the National Research Council of Canada, which is supporting research that will improve the profitability of Canadian Wheat producers.

Among the projects CWA is funding are two in Saskatoon which are developing a precise genetic mapping system — Canadian Wheat-Nested Association Mapping (CanNAM) — which will allow breeders to identify race-specific, rust resistance genes for leaf, stem and stripe rust and FHB for inclusion in AAFC and the U of S’s CDC breeding programs.

The second project is identifying wheat traits that contribute to maximum standability in different environments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with an aim to develop makers for these traits that can be incorporated into wheat breeding programs.

All these investments mean that farmers across Canada can look forward to some exciting new wheat varieties in the coming years, which will offer them higher yields, improved agronomic traits, disease and pest resistance, better stress tolerance and hopefully some new marketing options.