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Public plant breeding vital to future of industry

Key area of research for the plant agriculture department at the University of Guelph

By Andrea Smith, University of Guelph Agricultural Communications Student, for

Naming Dividend VL orchard grass the 2015 Seed of the Year winner underlines why and how innovation in public breeding is driving the agricultural industry forward.

Public plant breeding is a key area of research for the plant agriculture department at the University of Guelph where Dividend VL was developed. This orchard grass displays traits that will enhance the future of agriculture through its use as a platform technology for the release of commercial crop varieties.

Martin Harry of SeCan, organizer of the Seed of the Year competition, says Dividend VL is the latest maturing orchard grass variety ever introduced. It’s a driving force in the future of forage, he says, adding that it’s a better match with alfalfa maturity at harvest, providing more nutritious feed for livestock.

The development of Dividend VL is a prime example of the success of the University of Guelph’s plant breeding program, which generates $650 million each year for the economy.  Plant breeding in Ontario has taken place at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) since the late 1800s, when the institution opened with its interest in improving agriculture. Since then, over 500 plant varieties have been released from the OAC.

Advancements in new crop varieties are important for the agriculture and agri-food industry, as yield increases, resistance traits, biochemical components and nutrient improvements have benefits for farmers, processors, and consumers.

In the public breeding sector, developing varieties with important novel traits provide base foundations in seed quality. Additional agronomic traits are later selected and added, and the varieties are sold commercially.

Public and private breeding programs focus on different trait types due to the public pressure to release varieties.  Essential private breeding programs are typically funded by government or industry groups. The release of an individual variety typically costs $100,000.

But despite its importance and demand, plant breeding is generating little interest with the younger generation. Plant breeding is not in the public eye very often, so many are unaware of the job options in the field.

Peter Pauls, Chair of the Plant Agriculture Department at the University of Guelph sees this problem on a regular basis.

“Everyone eats, but plant-related careers are underappreciated,” he says.

With a dynamic sector that has been changing drastically over the past 15 years as the use of molecular techniques are implemented, Pauls says young people are needed for their creative minds and technical skillsets, to utilize these molecular techniques to their full potential.

For example, conventional breeding programs produce a commercially viable variety in 10 years. But using efficient molecular techniques can shorten this time because specific genetic markers can be implemented or selected to obtain desirable traits.  

Andrea Smith is in her fourth and final year at the University of Guelph where she studies plant science. Growing up on her family cash crop farm in Southern Ontario, she found an interest in the agricultural industry and is pursuing her studies with the goal of working in the sector in the future. In her spare time she enjoys reading, square dancing, and volunteering.  This article is part of Andrea Smith’s course work for the University of Guelph agricultural communications course, instructed by Prof. Owen Roberts.




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