Seed World

PGDC Puts the Focus on Regulation

From left: PRCPSC chair Glen Hawkins; PGDC chair Sheri Strydhorst; PRCWRT chair Dana Maxwell; PRCOB chair Marta Izydorczyk.

At the first in-person Prairie Grain Development Committee meeting since 2020, enabling breeders through good policy was a focus — but don’t count conventional breeding out yet.

At its first in-person meeting since 2020, members of the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC) focused on what they do best: bringing innovative lines forward to be registered as crop varieties in Canada.

PGDC is responsible for coordinating research and development activities related to grain crops in Western Canada, which includes conducting research on grain production, processing, and marketing, as well as developing new grain varieties and improving existing ones.

But as was on display this year, it’s not just yield and disease resistance that make new lines potentially game-changing ones.

By identifying the specific characteristics that affect end-use quality in different food systems, Marta Izydorczyk’s research program at the Canadian Grain Commission’s Milling and Malting Grain Research Laboratory can help breeders develop varieties that are optimized for those systems. This could lead to a more efficient and effective use of crops and greater value for producers, processors and consumers alike.

Izydorczyk also serves as chair of the Prairie Recommending Committee for Oats and Barley (PRCOB).

It was a somewhat unusual year for the PRCOB, with a whopping six oat lines and 12 barley lines up for consideration, including some hulless barley lines ideally suited to the food market.

These unique lines offer high levels of beta glucans, which are beneficial for human nutrition, she said. The dark colour of one of the lines may offer antioxidant properties, which adds to its nutritional value. Another line has even higher levels of beta glucans than previous high-beta-glucan lines, making it a potentially valuable replacement for previous varieties.

“The ability to make health claims associated with these lines will also likely increase their appeal to consumers,” she said.

Additionally, the PRCOB looked at two hulless barley lines suited to the brewing and distilling industries. With higher extract and no hulls, they could potentially offer advantages over previous varieties. Because there are no hulls, waste is reduced and the barley becomes easier to use and the lack of spent grain may simplify the brewing process for breweries.

One line is suited to distilling due to the fact is produces no glycosylated nitrile, a precursor of a compound known to be carcinogenic. As distilleries like to use barley varieties that won’t produce this compound, this line would be ideally suited for distilling due to its lack of hulls and the fact it won’t produce glycosylated nitrile, she said.

Regulatory Matters Join the Conversation

In wheat, rye and triticale, there were 19 lines recommended this year — nine Canadian Western Red Spring, three Canada Prairie Spring Red, two Canadian Western Amber Durum, one Soft White, one fall rye, one spring triticale and two winter triticale lines.
The PRCWRT is, at the moment, keeping status quo in regard to its merit assessment methodology for wheat diseases in Western Canada, but the committee is looking at potential changes or updates to the assessment.

“While there doesn’t seem to be any immediate pressure to shift the current merit definition or focus on different diseases, we’re always keeping an eye out for any new diseases that may arise,” committee chair Dana Maxwell said.

The five priority diseases that the committee is currently focusing on are stem rust, leaf rust, stripe rust, common bunt and fusarium head blight. These are considered to be amongst the most important diseases facing wheat in Western Canada at the moment.

However, the committee is also facing a challenge in how to efficiently assess candidates for suitability for both western and national registration.

“This is particularly important if a line is supported by another geographical recommending committee and is seeking national registration. The committee wants to ensure that they have all the necessary information to make an informed decision and support what CFIA does as the registrar.”

Mark Forhan, senior officer of the Plant Biosafety Office for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), spoke at this year’s PGDC plenary session and addressed the intricacies associated with Canada’s Regional Restriction variety registration system. Forhan said in his close to 20 years with the CFIA, wheat has been the only crop that has been registered regionally.

“It’s kind of common sense to test lines in the markets in which you tend to market your variety,” he said.

“If you’re planning on going national with it, the perfect situation would be to test it with all the recommending committees across the country. But I do understand it’s onerous for a variety developer to enter into multiple registration trials in Canada simultaneously.”

Then there’s issues of seed volume to consider.

“Unless we are able to solve that, we’re pretty much stuck with the system that we have right now for regional restrictions.

The Seed Regulatory Modernization (SRM) process has discussed challenges associated with regional restrictions, he said, but the ultimate solution is for the Eastern and Western recommending committees involved in regionally-restricted variety decisions to get together and to talk to each other to make the process easier, and float the possibility of shared check varieties in the case of disease resistance testing.

Facilitating Regulatory Change

The theme of this year’s plenary session was the regulatory sphere.

Jennifer Hubert, executive director of plant biotechnology for CropLife Canada, addressed the need for firm guidance from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on the matter of new breeding techniques, specifically gene editing. Ultimately, breeders need a regulatory system that fosters innovation and allows them to use new breeding techniques without fear that their product could be restricted due to triggering Canada’s Plants with Novel Traits (PNT) legislation, she said.

According to Hubert, breeders and seed developers are still waiting for that assurance. In May 2022, Health Canada published updated guidance confirming that editing a plant’s DNA does not pose any additional risk, and a safety assessment should only be required if allergens are created, nutrient composition impacted, or there’s a change in the food use of the plant as a result of using the new breeding technique.

CFIA’s anticipated policy regarding the use of new breeding techniques has not been published yet, she noted. Its actual PNT guidance is delayed due to political reasons and is based on misunderstandings of market transparency and how the sector is going to know what varieties were gene-edited, she said.

“From the 2019 commitment CFIA gave us, we’re now three years past the timelines we were originally given. We need this guidance. Not having it is hindering plant breeding innovation in Canada.”

Hubert noted that a study of plant breeders done in 2020 in Europe asking about the potential challenges and threats for bringing new breeding technologies to commercialization found that the biggest challenge is the regulatory environment.

“Right now, in Canada, there’s a lot of uncertainty in regard to what the regulatory landscape is going to look like. In order for the technology to be successful and reach its full potential we need a regulatory system different than what we have today for GMOs,” she said.

Canada is falling behind as a result.

“The first country to launch new policies for [gene editing] was Argentina — eight years ago. There’s good data coming out or Argentina in terms of the benefits of gene editing to the breeding community. With new breeding techniques, we’re seeing a big shift.”

In countries with clear guidelines and policies concerning new breeding techniques, most new varieties are coming from small-to-medium-size companies and public research, not major multinationals, she said.

Don’t Count Conventional Breeding Out

But just one area where innovation and progress is happening is the pulse and specialty crops sector.

It was a record year for the Prairie Recommending Committee for Pulses and Special Crops (PRCPSC), with nearly 40 lines under consideration — five fava bean lines, six yellow pea, two marrow fat peas (they make the best mushy peas but are also great for dips, salads and even crunchy snacks), one forage pea line and a whopping 17 lentil lines, some specialty and some conventional.

The big surge in numbers came on the lentil side with the separation of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG) from the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan. Last summer, SPG and Limagrain Field Seeds announced a new collaboration for pulse breeding in Saskatchewan that has a strong commercial focus and will bring new and additional investment into pea and lentil breeding in the province, increasing competition and creating a strong environment to foster innovation, according to the partners.

As a result, Limagrain Field Seeds brought all the lentil genetics that they had access to the table this year, explained Glen Hawkins, committee chair and seed production manager/pulse breeder for DL Seeds.

“This is probably the first time in my tenure here with PGDC where one collaboration has ended, and then a new collaboration is formed, and they bring over the genetics from the previous entity. All these lentil lines were all bred through the CDC, but became property of SPG,” he said.

It’s proof that shifting dynamics in the industry can result in some surprising developments in the world of plant breeding.

“In the past, in terms of lentil, it was the CDC that was the major and pretty much only breeding institution in Canada that was bringing forth lines for recommendation. These shifting dynamics just broaden the scope a little bit, and maybe we’ll see a few more lines out there than we would have in past years now that there’s two groups looking to get lines into the marketplace,” Hawkins added.

It speaks to the fact, Hawkins says, that despite questions around Canada’s regulatory landscape, there’s still innovative things happening in the breeding sphere. Conventional breeding isn’t dead.

“New breeding techniques like gene editing are crucial, for sure, but we’re not seeing them so much on the pulse side of it. Of course, DL Seeds is a major player in the canola breeding game. With the sequencing of canola genomes, it’s at the point where the technology is useful,” he said.

“I think we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg in pulses. There’s a bit less investment in high-level genomic research in pulses compared to some of the other crops that have a higher market share that are more lucrative. But let’s not forget genomics isn’t a cheap endeavour. The amount of investment that’s required is big, and if we use faba bean as an example of a crop that’s garnering less than 100,000 acres in Canada right now, there’s not really the return on investment to warrant high resolution molecular tools in the breeding game.”