Catalyst Centre News

Guelph Mercury

Dec 2, 2013

No seeds mean no plants in a hungry world

By Owen Roberts

Farming slogans make superb rallying points.

A mainstay is the highly successful "Farmers feed cities," with its instantly identifiable black and yellow signage. Lately, I've seen "I farm, you eat," more of a personal message, as well as "No farms, no food," in response to urban sprawl.

But how about "No seeds, no plants"?

For the most part, seeds have eluded public interest. Seeds of Diversity, a 1,400-member Canadian volunteer organization dedicated to biodiversity and what it calls "traditional knowledge" of crops and garden plants, is an exception. But beyond gardeners who mostly care about seeds in the spring, and maybe a bit in the fall, seeds are considered ho-hum. That's the case, even though seeds are as fundamental as anything else in the production chain — water, heat, sunshine, bees, you name it — for successful farming.

No seeds means no plants. And no plants means no food, for either livestock or humans. It's pretty simple.

Ten years ago a group committed to promoting an appreciation of the role of seeds in modern agriculture created a program called Seed of the Year. The effort, led by SeCan and the University of Guelph, was designed to recognize exceptional Canadian plant varieties developed through public breeding efforts, such as those supported mainly at Guelph by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

SeCan helps the university get new plant varieties in the hands of farmers by licensing them and making them available to seed companies. This system has been instrumental in making Guelph the country's most efficient and inventive university — Guelph leads the country in invention disclosures per faculty member, and spends a fraction of what most universities spend on invention disclosures.

Since the 1977, royalties generated from plant variety development supported by the province at U of G have reached $11 million.

"It's a milestone," says Mike Toombs, director of research and innovation for the province's agriculture ministry, which turns around and channels those royalties right back into plant research. Indeed, it's certainly an excellent system.

One of the top plant varieties ever developed at the University Guelph, or anywhere in Canada for that matter, is called OAC (for Ontario Agricultural College) Bayfield. It came onto the scene 20 years ago, the brainchild of plant scientists Wally Beversdorf and the late Jack Tanner. It was a standout in areas such as high yield, dependability and consistency — so much so, that while most plant varieties have a longevity of just a few years before they're replaced by a superior variety, Bayfield endured for a full decade, and then some.

And even today, OAC Bayfield is still grown in limited quantities. But its main legacy is that its genetic base has been used to develop several more new varieties that have become standards in Ontario soybean fields. Those include OAC Wallace, which is expected to go on to even surpass the contributions of OAC Bayfield.

That performance remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure — OAC Bayfield significantly helped soybean production in Ontario grow to more than 2.5 million acres, making soybeans Ontario's biggest field crop. Last week, in recognition of its 20th anniversary, OAC Bayfield was named Seed of the Year. Those who developed it (including Beversdorf), marketed it and planted it gathered at the Cutten Club in Guelph last Wednesday night to sing its praises.

Plant breeders are vital to the agriculture and food sector. Efforts are underway to recruit students into plant breeding programs at Guelph, as well as to establish a wheat breeding chair, with the help of Grain Farmers of Ontario, to develop more top crops.

No seeds mean no plants. And in an increasingly hungry world, that's just not an option.

 Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. You can also check out his Urban Cowboy blog on www.guelphmercury.com