Barley Remains Off The “Bleeding Edge” Of Current Crop Science Innovation

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“At the end of the day, this study might raise more questions than it answers, but at least it will start the kind of conversations that we need to be having.”

CHARLIE PEARSON

ALBERTA AGRICULTURE CROPS MARKET ANALYST

If you are a barley farmer, you likely hold a strong view about whether you’d consider raising genetically modified (GM) barley. And, if you are like most other farmers, your answer is probably a resounding – not interested.

Though transgenic barley offers potential economic and agronomic benefits, most farmers believe the global markets are too likely to use GM as an excuse to keep Canadian barley exports – both GM barley and non-GM barley – out.

Last year, 51 per cent of growers told the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) that they were not interested in raising GM barley, and that number has likely increased since the Triffid flax issue surfaced on farmers’ radar.

Alberta Agriculture is currently undertaking a project called the “Socio-economic Analysis of Adopting Transgenic Barley.” The study included discussions with a number of Alberta grain producer organizations. The project is an indepth study geared to review the benefits, costs and risks of commercializing genetically modified (GM) barley in Alberta.

Not taking sides

Charlie Pearson, Alberta Agriculture’s provincial crops market analyst in charge of this study said, the project is not designed to “take a side on whether (GM barley) is good, bad or indifferent.” He agrees that GM barley is still a long ways from commercialization.

However, he also believes this type of research is important as it begins to lay the necessary groundwork so that cost-benefit questions can be answered and issues can be managed long before GM barley seed ever reaches the field.

“At the end of the day, this study might raise more questions than it answers, but at least it will start the kind of conversations that we need to be having,” he said.

The project is made up of two parts: a survey of the barley supply chain (including a survey of opinions from every element of the chain, from farmers to livestock feeders, and from maltsters to food processors), and a cost-benefit analysis of using GMO technology.

The project is intended to answer multiple questions. On the agronomic side, if barley had access to the full complement of breeding techniques, would it be competitive with other crops? On the economic side, do the potential benefits outweigh the costs? And on the marketing side, what are the attitudes within the barley supply chain (from producers through to processors), and what might contribute to changing these opinions?

Falling behind

At issue is the fact that Canadian barley is falling behind in production, economic viability, and crop science compared to other crops and it is having trouble keeping up with potential growth in the Alberta livestock sector.

“We should put technology to work if this means getting better varieties of barley so long as we don’t get any push-back from customers,” said Bryan Walton, CEO of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association. “Unfortunately, push-back is likely if the technology we’re talking about is genetic modification and the grain in question is barley.”

Approximately 80 per cent of barley grown in Canada is of a malt variety, yet only 15 to 20 per cent of that is actually selected for malt production, whereas the vast majority is used as livestock feed. While there is greater tolerance for GMOs in livestock feed (most other grains used for feed are already genetically modified), the fact that barley used for human consumption and that used for animal feed comes from the same fields means segregation is not possible. Therefore, although barley is primarily used for animal feed and must compete with other animal feeds, it has to work within the GMO tolerance levels required of grain used for human consumption.

Some believe it is falling too far behind. “We’re not keeping pace with improvements in other crops because we’re not accessing all the available tools,” said Western Barley Producers Association (WBPA) president, Brian Otto. Many farmers are finding it more economical to grow something other than barley, so the number of planted acres of barley is steadily decreasing.

True as these concerns for Canadian barley may be, global acceptance of transgenic barley remains distant. At this point, solving barley supply and competition problems through GMO technology can only be done hypothetically, and could restrict market access.

“We believe there is a place for GMO technology, especially in barley, but until it has worldwide acceptance we have to be very careful,” Otto says.

Triffid flax is a case in point. Europe’s zero-tolerance rules mean that Canada’s flax is currently unsalable in this important global market. Even though the GM flax strain was removed from circulation a decade ago and current flax has less than one part GMO in 10,000 (or a total of about four kilograms of GM flax per B train semitruckloak), the EU has drawn a very hard line and is demanding extremely strict protocol on Canadian flax.

The restriction, Otto says, has “nothing at all to do with food safety.” Instead, he believes – as many do – that the tolerance level is designed as an artificial trade barrier. Unfortunately, it’s a trade barrier that is extremely effective and hard to combat.

Some might say flax is on the “bleeding edge” of crop science innovation, in this case suffering because it is being used a test subject for a new kind of global economic powerplay.

But, as Pearson says about crop science technology in general: “if you are right at the forefront, you endure the pain as (the new technology) gains market acceptance.”

When it comes to barley, he believes the type of research Alberta Agriculture is currently undertaking will help set the stage for future GMO barley competitiveness.

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