Syngenta expects Canada to be at the forefront of the anticipated wheat development revolution and plans to have new varieties in farmers’ hands soon.
“By 2020, our intention is to bring hybrid wheat into the marketplace” in Canada and the United States, said Todd Ormann, head of Syngenta’s Canadian wheat development program.
“If I was a betting man, five to 10 years from now I’d say Canada will be a leader and Canada will showcase a lot of what can be done in cereals, not the U.S. We have that ability to make these changes probably a little easier.”
Wheat has fallen out of favour in North America in recent years.
Significant production and profitability gains make the U.S. Midwest rotation of corn-soybeans-corn-soybeans almost irresistible, while western Canadian farmers have been pushing canola rotations as close as possible, gobbling up acres that used to be planted to wheat.
Wheat acreage in Canada is further threatened as corn and soybean varieties are developed that can handle the region’s short, cooler season.
However, the world’s biggest crop companies, including Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer, Monsanto and BASF, have placed a new emphasis on wheat. They are using seed treatments, insecticides, hybridization and genetic modification to close the yield and profitability gap between wheat and corn, soybeans and canola.
“Everybody sees this as kind of getting the next frontier for the next canola or corn,” Ormann said.
Ormann, who spoke at the Grainworld conference in Winnipeg Feb. 26, said his company, like its rivals, sees huge potential in wheat. It is the biggest crop in the world, supplying 21 percent of the calories consumed.
Hybridization of cereals is well underway, but it takes years for new varieties to get to market. Ormann said farmers shouldn’t think of hybrid wheat as better primarily because of better yields but because of overall toughness.
“It’s not so much about the yield the hybrid brings but the consistency in production,” said Ormann.
He said the problem with some of today’s best-yielding wheat varieties is that they become among the worst when growing conditions deteriorate. Hybrids are able to yield well while surviving production challenges.
Ormann said a problem for wheat breeders is getting paid for the value of new varieties. Only 21 percent of Canadian wheat acreage is seeded to certified seed, and “we know that for the market to be sustainable we are going to have to see more certified seed.”
Hybrids help that situation, but he said forming better linkages between farmers and end users also helps convince farmers it’s worth the extra cost to buy certified seed.
“I think growers will pay for it,” said Ormann.
Wheat has disappointed prairie farmers for years. Net returns are worse in most years than canola, and producers often describe it as a rotation crop.
Price spikes of recent years have challenged that attitude, but the long-term trend still points to corn, soybean and canola acreages gaining at the expense of wheat.
However, the advent of hybrid wheat, biotechnological innovations, better fungicides and seed treatments and better overall management mean wheat might make a sustainable comeback around the world.
Ormann said Canada will probably help lead this comeback because Canada’s crop industry focuses a lot on cereals, which isn’t true in the U.S., and is collaborative by nature, which also isn’t done as well in the U.S.
“That collaboration … gives Canada, I think, a leg up in this space,” said Ormann.