Be bold and dream big, says legendary plant scientist

The father of farmers’ biggest money-maker says crop scientists are just getting started

Wilf Keller isn’t a household name, even in farm circles, but his work has helped pay a lot of mortgages across the Prairies.

The Saskatchewan native was the key player in the development of the first genetically modified, herbicide-resistant canola — the most profitable crop Canadian farmers have ever grown.

Since 2012, Keller has been with AgWest Bio, a non-profit that advocates for science in the agri-food sector. He recently spoke at an Alberta Seed Processors meeting, and Alberta Farmer caught up with him later to ask him a few questions.

What should change so Canada can have the strongest research possible?

To start with, we need to take a long-term view. Canada is a significant player in agriculture and food. We’re the fifth-biggest exporter. Nine per cent of everyone who works in Canada works in agriculture. We should have a vision of doubling those numbers. This $100-billion industry should become a $200-billion industry.

But to do that, you need a 20-year plan. We need to do more long-term discovery research and make investments in how to make plants more efficient. We could make improvements on how plants use fertilizer and how they use water. All of those areas lead to increased yield and productivity.

We could improve the quality and the components of the seed so there is more oil in canola, and so there is better protein quality in peas. All of those things require discovery research.

If we make the right investments there, we need to connect with users. It could be small or large companies, but we need to make sure we have the right kind of investment environment for these small companies to grow. You have to connect all the dots from discovery to development to commercialization.

Now is the time to do it, because we in Western Canada have been very heavily dependent on energy and that doesn’t look good for the next few years. Let’s put the energy superpower on the side and let’s become a food superpower.

What are some of the new agricultural technologies that producers can expect to see?

Longer term, we’re going to see significant improvements in the area of nitrogen and fertilizer use. Manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer is energy intensive and creates quite a bit of carbon dioxide. If you then produce that fertilizer and put it in the soil, if you’re not careful, it can be released as nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas.

You have to make sure a plant is very efficient at capturing the nitrogen in the soil. It needs to recognize those molecules, capture them quickly, and use them to produce protein.

There is other work going on now that I think will bear fruit in 10 years, such as intelligent fertilizer. You put the fertilizer pellet in the soil, you have a coat around it, and it doesn’t react at all until it receives a molecular signal from a root that has approached that fertilizer pellet. Only then will that fertilizer pellet release its fertilizer.

Producers are going to be able to seed plants that have a much bigger genetic yield potential. We’re going to see inroads on disease and insect tolerance through genetic improvement in the plants. There could also be the use of biological agents to counteract the pathogens and insect pests, as well as novel methods of controlling insects. For example, genetically engineering insects so they are sterile.

There’s also RNA high interference. That’s something you can provide on the surface of a plant, like a spray. It’s not a chemical, it’s a genetic information molecule that prevents certain things from happening in the plant… If you figure out that there is an insect that may have some genes associated with the way it injects a pathogen into the plant, and can find those genes, then you could use the RNA for those genes to block the message. The insect is no longer capable of injecting the pathogen in the plant and the plant would be disease free.

That is highly interesting, because it would only affect a pest when it tries to attack a plant that has been treated topically with RNA. The beneficial insects wouldn’t even recognize that molecule. You are actually using a degradable biological molecule to interfere with a target organism. It could be a weed, an insect, or a fungal disease.

What do you see as some of the opportunities for agriculture, especially in carbon sequestration?

Prairie farmers, because they use continuous cropping, are cultivating stubble back into the land every year and that stubble contains carbon. You sequester carbon from the air and put it back in the soil.

Maybe we can make better plants for capturing carbon to begin with. In other words, you’ve got a better stubble for putting carbon back. Right now, Canada is trapping 11 million tonnes of carbon in the soil annually. Maybe we can get that closer to 20 if we try to produce stubble that is more amenable to that process.

We need to make plants photosynthetically active because plants actually use carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but it’s not a pollutant. Plants need it. So if we can make plants photosynthetically more efficient, that means they’ll use more carbon dioxide out of the air and they’ll produce more carbon in the seeds and the stems.

Research and producers can contribute to anti-climate change. Agriculture is indeed a provider of solutions of climate change, not a causal agent of greenhouse gas.

How can agriculture improve its situation?

I’m a big fan of thinking on a larger basis than thinking on a provincial basis.

On the Prairies, we have about 85 per cent of Canada’s arable land. You have 100 million acres of land and less than 10 million people. That is a breadbasket for the world.

We have to think about how we can co-operate with each other to do things like make plants with more efficient photosynthesis. That’s the equivalent of putting a man on the moon. We shouldn’t think of our province first because once you develop these new products and crops, we’ll all benefit. There is room for thinking on a global level rather than a provincial level. We shouldn’t go individually to Ottawa; we should go collectively.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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