Syngenta Canada president Jay Bradshaw says wheat is Canada’s next “Cinderella” crop, but warns that the opportunity could be lost if governments stray from science-based regulations, discouraging private research investment.
“My biggest competitors are inside our own global research budget,” Bradshaw told the Western Canadian Wheat Growers convention in Vancouver last week. “We need to ensure that Canada continues to get research-investment funding. Right now other parts of the world have higher returns on research in the current environment.”
Wheat Growers president Kevin Bender, who farms at Bentley, Alta., said he has seen wheat acreage drop over the years, and believes that biotechnology and GM wheat can help reverse the trend.
“Bill C-474, which wants to stop biotech or genetically modified development of crops until there has been a study done on foreign market acceptance, would really be a step back for us,” said Bender. “If that happens here, the money could be going into other countries and Canada would really fall behind. We need to stay with the rest of the world when it comes to the development of crops.”
Bradshaw cites Bill C-474 and the Ontario government’s cosmetic pesticide ban as examples of regulation that moved away from pure science and creates an unstable environment for investment.
“When you look at a company like Syngenta that spends a billion dollars a year on research, there are other options,” said Bradshaw. “Head office is allocating research spending, looking at return on investment plus what we want to do as individual countries. When you get a couple of things that show they may be leaning away from science-based regulation, there may be better places to put our dollars.”
Bradshaw says he’s not giving up – it’s his job to advocate for continued investment in Canada. As long as the industry and government can work together, he is confident that wheat will be the next big success story for Canadian agriculture.
“Historically canola was the Cinderella crop for Western Canada – Canadian research, and Canadian innovation moving from rapeseed to canola,” said Bradshaw. “Now there are 18 million to 20 million acres planted, and $4 billion to 5 billion in exports. It created a phenomenal industry for Canada. We can do it again. We can do it with wheat.”
Regulation is not the only success factor in the development of GM wheat in Canada. Trish Jordan of Monsanto Canada has seen a change in the appetite of industry for the development of new technologies.
“Up until two years ago wheat was out of the picture because there was too much volatility and divergence about whether biotechnology was the way to go within the farmer base, the sector, and the federal government,” she said. “When you have that much volatility it’s not a good environment for investment.”
While the major players in biotechnology are lining up to get into the wheat market, translating the success of canola into wheat will ultimately depend on the industry’s commitment to cross-sector collaboration. Bradshaw points to the success of the Canola Council of Canada.
“Every canola grower grows wheat,” he says. “It’s the same people. Let’s take that knowledge and learning and apply it to the wheat industry.
“If we are going to get into GM wheat, we are realistically seven to eight years out. If we start these collaborative discussions today then maybe by the time the technology is ready we’ll have public acceptance, so let’s get started.”
Bradshaw predicts that the next-step change in technology and yield advancement in wheat will come from partnerships between private and public breeders. As the largest private breeder in cereal crops, Syngenta is looking to Canada, the U.S., Australia, and even Eastern Europe for research partnerships.
“Sooner or later we are going to have to pick, and I want Canada to be the one,” says Bradshaw. “I think we have the best opportunity. We already have the credibility and status as one of the best, highest- quality wheat-producing countries in the world. I don’t want to see that slip, but I suspect that other countries have almost caught up to us, and I see their potential going past us.”