Optimizing the use of check-off dollars
Daryl Domitruk, PhD, PAg, Director of Research and Production, MPSG
A SURVEY CONDUCTED by prairie farm policy groups showed low farmer satisfaction with the two seed royalty options currently on the table. As individual farmers weigh the cost of accessing the best genetics, grower-led associations such as Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG) are prompted to consider the role check-offs will play in future plant breeding programs.
Traditionally, farmer funding has played a major role in supporting public breeding programs operated by universities and governments. It seems like a good time to review this tradition as efforts to revise seed royalties seek to encourage private sector investment in plant breeding.
Following tradition, MPSG provides funding to several publicly owned plant breeding programs. These contributions enable government cash to flow to the program and allow the host institution to free up researchers’ time and physical infrastructure to carry out genetics research and plant breeding on our behalf.
The results of this work reveal to scientists the genetic basis of crop traits. Some scientists pass the knowledge along to plant breeders in the public and private sectors. That occurs either through an open exchange of knowledge or through business agreements that license the acquisition and use of intellectual property.
Several research programs funded by MPSG put the knowledge to work internally, producing market-ready varieties that are, likewise, licensed to private sector seed companies. Also, in accordance with tradition, MPSG forgoes any commercial rights to the results leaving the host institution free to maximize their licensing revenue. That is in line with MPSG’s mandate to pursue the broader good for farmers and to enable on-going public research. Under this system, funders such as MPSG seek a return solely in the form of new varieties which they will have the option of purchasing through the retail market.
PLANT BREEDING ACROSS CANADA
Comparing MPSG’s investments in plant breeding with other pulse and soybean grower organizations highlights the fact that MPSG’s involvement is relatively modest. Growers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and North Dakota are more deeply invested in plant breeding largely as a result of their historical links with local universities and government agencies.
Manitoba’s public research organizations have placed less emphasis on plant breeding. The exception is cereal breeding, where AAFC is very active at its two centres in Manitoba — Brandon and Morden. Overall, when it comes to pulse and soybean breeding, MPSG most often partners with its sister organizations to fund breeding work in their provinces. Specifically, MPSG contributes to field pea programs at the University of Saskatchewan and AAFC-Lacombe (Alberta), in partnership with the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers and Alberta Pulse Growers.
A DEEP DIVE ON VARIETY DEVELOPMENT AND IMPROVEMENT
Improving pea varieties requires a great deal of “upstream” research. For example, disease resistance is a primary objective for pea breeders, but resistance genes are like needles in the haystack. That’s why the AAFC pathology teams, including those at Brandon and Morden, are called upon to sift through the pea genome to identify disease resistance genes. MPSG customarily funds such behind-the-scenes research as a precursor to actual plant breeding.
With no commercial claim to these genes, MPSG members simply wait for those genes to be transferred into genetic lines with elite agronomic traits and turned into new and improved varieties. It’s a system of funding that has worked in peas, as evidenced by a steady stream of improved varieties from the public system. Farmers seem to have accepted their role as funders at multiple points, starting with upstream research grants, progressing through plant breeding and ending with the retail cost of seed, including the royalties paid to the public breeding institution.
With respect to soybeans, MPSG has partnered with Ontario and Quebec growers in a breeding program at AAFC-Ottawa and soybean genetics research at Université Laval. Soybean breeding is a different game because, in contrast to peas, almost all soybean varieties grown in Manitoba are developed from the ground up by the private sector.
Theoretically, farmers provide funding to public agencies so that the type of upstream discoveries made in peas can also be found in soybeans, then licensed to private companies for inclusion in their mostly herbicide-tolerant varieties. Grower-funded findings can also be incorporated into conventional varieties developed by the institutions. Indeed, if Manitoba’s conventional soybean production was more of a going concern, these varieties would be grown more extensively.
For certain, MPSG’s joint investments at Ottawa and Laval are helping uncover some key upstream knowledge on yield, disease resistance and protein. As opposed to funding the development of new varieties, it is more likely that investments in protein and disease improvement will pay dividends back to Manitoba farmers in the near term.
Dry bean breeding in Manitoba
One program in which MPSG is deeply invested is dry bean development at AAFC-Morden. MPSG is the sole non-government funder of this work. Like other public programs, Morden’s dry bean program, one of three operated by the federal government across Canada, generates new varieties as well as knowledge and germplasm.
Private plant breeders currently play a dominant role in the dry been seed market. As with other crops, the output from public programs is shared or licensed to public and private breeders. Recent advances include resistance to common bacterial blight and anthracnose. Again, these advances build on upstream pathology studies, also supported by growers.
The rate of new variety release from Morden is anticipated to increase as the breeding cycle reaches advanced generations. In the dry bean business, uptake by buyers and consumers is an important feature of new varieties. Improved agronomic traits for the farmer don’t automatically translate into demand from the buyer; there needs to be something in it for the processor or consumer.
That raises an additional question about where grower investment should go. Increasingly pulse and soybean quality traits are developed to meet specific market requirements. It has been assumed that farmers have a stake in improving the quality of the crop by funding research in genetics and breeding. Indeed, MPSG is currently partnered with its sister organizations across Canada to research the cooking and milling quality of dry beans. There is a large bank of farmer-funded knowledge on the health attributes of dry beans as well as projects currently underway to improve protein content and quality in peas. However, in contrast to improved production traits such as disease resistance, unless farmers are being paid on a quality basis, the benefits flowing back to the farmer from these investments are less noticeable.
Soybean protein and return on investment
Sometimes, farmers do have a direct interest in the genetics of crop quality. In the case of soybean meal, growers face a potential discount for low protein. As a result, MPSG is actively funding research to increase protein. First, though, we must figure out how the plant manufactures protein in our northern climate. Much like upstream pathology, investments in university and government investigations into the genetic determinants of protein are helping figure this out.
Our neighbours in North Dakota are doing the same thing but are going one step further. The North Dakota Soybean Commission’s funding for soybean breeding has enabled North Dakota State University to release a soybean with off-patent herbicide resistance. This variety is distributed through a system that, at the end of the day, makes seed more affordable for farmers in the marginal soybean production areas. Those growers don’t have to look far to see the value of their check-off investment.
As governments and variety developers debate the future form of seed royalties, farmers need to consider the direct role grower organizations play in variety improvement. With success in public programs based on licensing to the private sector, farmers will remain vigilant over where their dollars are going and what is coming back.