A passion for new organic varieties

Stephen Fox, a Canadian wheat breeder

Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

Stephen Fox is a busy man.  From his Canada Western Red Spring Wheat breeding program, based at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Cereal Research Centre located in Winnipeg, he oversees in the neighborhood of 12,000 yield plots and 35,000 nursery rows every year across Western Canada.  Here, he collects data that is used to identify new wheat varieties that aspire to provide better yields, be more resistant to diseases and insect pests and improve Canadian agricultural productivity.

In 2004, after attending an organic field day seminar organized by Dr. Martin Entz, Fox decided to try his hand at breeding cultivars for organic production. Seven years later, Fox now has a well established organic-based wheat breeding program and is beginning to identify varieties that are adapted to organic growing conditions. This program forms the basis of the organic cereal crop breeding research activity of the Organic Science Cluster.

Why breed specifically for organic production?  The agroecology of organics is different; there is restricted nutrient availability, the microflora of the soil is different and weed pressure is a big constraint. The breeding program aims to generate varieties that yield highly under this organic agroecosystem. Then, it will be possible to study why these varieties are adapted to organic, and what features these plants have that the conventionally bred cultivars do not.

“Some of the conventional varieties are very appropriate for organic production, others are not,” notes Fox. “Lots of things are the same between conventional and organic breeds; it is not an easy task to determine what is different. We are chasing physiological features of cultivars that make them better suited to organic production rather than conventional, but we don’t yet really know what those features are,” confirms Fox.

“The worst case outcome for breeding organic wheat would be to find out that the conventional and organic environments don’t differ. But, if you finally argue that they are the same, I will only have done more wheat breeding which isn’t so bad.” However, he believes that the materials generated while creating novel varieties for organic agriculture will be useful in demonstrating adaptation to organic production and will provide the basis for research projects to elucidate these adaptation factors.

Fox observes that some plant traits may be valued differently in conventional and organic production systems. As an example, shorter plants are preferred in conventional agriculture, as they tend to be more resistant to lodging while supporting heavy spikes. In organic situations, taller plants may be more appropriate, because they may be more competitive with weeds and will tend to grow less tall due to nutrient stresses. 

Building a breeding program takes time, requiring eight to twelve generations of selection and testing.  It all begins with an initial cross. After seven generations of segregation, a new line is adequately inbred and represents a potential new cultivar. However, six more years of testing are typically required to identify a new cultivar suitable for registration.  "Once this happens, the seed grower can start multiplying a cultivar for commercial use," explains Fox, which requires three more years of time and investment before the line is finally ready to go on the market.

With this heavy investment of time and resources, Fox works hard to ensure that the data used to make the decision to register a variety is of good quality. A breeding program struggles when pertinent information cannot be obtained, which can happen for any number of reasons. If the weather is too dry, then assessment of disease resistance cannot be done. If a location is heavily wind  damaged, lodging resistance cannot be estimated. Frosted grain cannot be used to make grain quality decisions.  Having multiple test locations, as Fox does, helps to avoid these obstacles, while also providing additional opportunities to see specific plant stress conditions that are difficult to create in a breeding nursery environment. “I run a fairly big wheat breeding program; having material at various locations helps to protect the program from losing material all together and ensures getting an adequate amount of data to make good decisions each year.”

“I measure my success based on variety surveys: if farmers grow my varieties, then I must be doing a good job. This is more important to me than counting the number of my scientific publications. I am proud when farmers grow my varieties.”
Being ecosensitive, Fox is planning to implement a carbon neutral system in his house in Winnipeg to supplement water and heating; he also plans to build a rain collector and has been composting for years. Using fewer resources makes sense to him, as well as using them wisely. 

Fox dreams of being the best wheat breeder in Western Canada and of the Winnipeg Jets winning the Stanley Cup.  Then, Canada could feed its hockey players the best organic wheat varieties!  After all, we already have Kane wheat, and one of the Jets star players is named Evander Kane...

This article was written by Nicole Boudreau, Organic Federation of Canada, on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners. For more information: oacc@dal.ca or 902-893-7256.


Posted September 2012