On the environmental side, there are the impacts of climate change, including severe and unseasonal weather events, and ever-evolving disease pressures.
Aiding farmers in the quest to navigate this host of interconnected challenges are researchers at the University of Saskatchewan’s (USask) Crop Development Centre (CDC), which is at “the epicentre of working on a range of crops – such as small-grained cereals, flax, pulses and forage crops – that fit well into sustainable production systems across the Prairies,” says Curtis Pozniak, professor, director and wheat breeder at the CDC in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “Farm productivity and crop yields are obviously very important, but so are sustainability and stability of performance. That’s why we need to breed crops that are resistant to disease and that can withstand abiotic stresses, such as heat, cold or drought.”
Plant breeding represents the translation of scientific knowledge into solutions for farmers, he says. “It’s about making plants more resilient to enhance food systems – and to ultimately boost food security. And this requires anticipating the needs of food producers as well as consumers since it takes anywhere from eight to 10 years to develop new varieties.”
As the world is undergoing rapid changes, this may seem a significant length of time, suggests Dr. Pozniak. “Future weather patterns can be hard to predict. In some years, we may see a cool spring followed by rapid warming or more rainfall closer to the harvest, so the best strategy is to screen and identify breeding materials for different types of environments – and select those varieties that show promise to be successful under stressful climatic conditions.”
Outcomes can be enhanced when forecasting efforts are informed by the views of different stakeholders. “We have to understand the problems farmers are experiencing or anticipating in their fields,” he says. “We also have an eye on the needs of everyone across that entire value chain – from the grower and food processor to the consumer – so when we develop varieties, we’re hitting all the meaningful targets.”
A focus on disease resistance
While the Prairies are often referred to as “the world’s granary” due to the amount of wheat grown here, pulse crops – such as peas, lentils, dry beans and chickpeas – are also a significant part of the local agricultural economy, says Sabine Banniza, professor and pulse pathologist at the CDC.
A major factor that can affect the environmental and economic performance on farms is disease pressure, notes Dr. Banniza. “Diseases can cause significant yield losses, from an average of about 40 per cent to a complete wipeout of 100 per cent, so that’s a big issue. For some diseases, we do not have chemical solutions, so we have to take a different approach.”
One of the “most environmentally friendly methods of managing diseases is resistance breeding,” she says. “Disease resistance, to enhance a plant’s ability to fight off disease, is high on the list of breeding objectives since it can lead to stable farm productivity in the long run.”
Plant breeding includes resistance screening, trying to find strains of a plant species with natural resistance, as well as cross-breeding with wild relatives to transfer resistance into varieties that can be useful for commercial production, she says. “To make the process more efficient and faster, we use molecular research to decipher what genes convey resistance to the plant.”
Since plant breeding takes time, efforts need to align with emerging conditions on farms, starting with determining what pathogens are putting crops at risk today – and projecting their future impact, Dr. Banniza explains. “Since many fungal and bacterial diseases depend on certain environmental conditions, we may see a change in what diseases show up due to climate change. We’re monitoring different pathogens to see whether their prevalence is changing and whether new pathogens are popping up.”
In addition, through co-evolution, a pathogen can adapt and break down existing plant resistance, she adds. “It’s a constant race between the plant breeder and the pathogens to stay ahead of the curve.”
A toolbox for farmers
From understanding how pathogens interact with a plant at a molecular level – and what genes can help the plant resist a particular pathogen’s invasion – scientists can then work on solutions to ensure yield stability or yield increase, says Dr. Banniza. “This knowledge allows us to put together a toolbox for farmers.”
In addition to disease-resistant varieties, the team can identify other measures to address pathogens, she explains. “When we understand that some fungi infecting pea crop species can only survive for three or four years without a pea crop in the field, farmers can plant a different crop, one that isn’t susceptible to this kind of pathogen, for that period.”
More diverse cropping systems, especially those designed to break up disease cycles, can serve to enhance the health, performance and resilience of agro-ecosystems, and enable more stable food production, says Dr. Banniza, whose team also works closely with the provincial government to organize disease surveys and provide recommendation on disease management and policy.
“There is a lot of communication between the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and the CDC when it comes to pests and diseases,” she notes. “They rely on us for expertise and research capacity, and we rely on them to disseminate whatever we find to the farming community.”
Disease surveys can provide valuable information about the presence of diseases on the Prairies, across Canada and beyond, and Dr. Pozniak says international collaboration “can provide insights on how pathogen populations are changing globally.”
What’s more, exchanging germplasm – the seeds, plants or plant parts used in crop breeding, research and conservation efforts – can help facilitate the sharing of genetic material and information, he explains. “Plant breeding programs focus on different conditions at different times during plant development, so working together with international research centres can help us identify useful material suited to different environments.”
Through adding genetic diversity into breeding programs, such collaborations can result in more resilient varieties, according to Dr. Pozniak. “Most of the crops we work with have wild relatives in nature, for example, the wild wheat varieties found in the Fertile Crescent in Israel and Turkey,” he says. “Sometimes, these wild relatives have genes that are important for nutrient-use efficiency or disease resistance. Integrating them into our breeding programs allows us to develop varieties with traits that may have been lost during domestication.”
The result is a “cumulative effect that is becoming even more valuable in light of current tools and technologies that allow us to strategically utilize that diversity,” says Dr. Pozniak, giving the example of DNA sequencing as “a blueprint of the genome that we can use as a guide to advance predictive breeding.”
Multidisciplinary approaches to complex issues
In addition to genome sequencing technology, plant breeders can turn to drones for digital imagery documenting breeding trials, which “can reveal more information than the human eye,” says Dr. Pozniak. “The sky’s the limit. With AI technology, in the context of genome fingerprinting and field-based digital measurements of performance using drone technology, we can generate large real-time datasets, which are analyzed for patterns that are useful for predictive breeding.”
One of the advantages of USask is the ability to bring together diverse teams across various disciplines with a common goal: to boost food security, says USask vice-president research Baljit Singh. “In addition to our considerable strength in plant breeding, we have specialists working at the water-food nexus. We also have significant competencies in data analysis and technology development that could all help to make agricultural systems more sustainable and resilient to climate change.”
With an impressive array of expertise – and world-leading research infrastructure – USask has the “aspiration to be the university the world needs,” says Dr. Singh. “We see ourselves as partners in the global effort to find solutions to pressing problems, since there is no single university or single country that is in a position to deal with such complex issues alone.”
The CDC’s impressive contribution to the ability to feed a growing global population against the backdrop of a changing climate includes the development of more than 500 commercialized crop varieties across 40 different crop types over the past five decades. “We’re proud of our role in translating our scientific findings into tools that can help society,” says Dr. Singh.
“Hunger is a significant global concern,” adds Dr. Pozniak, “we’re all part of a global system – and we need to do our part to create better outcomes.”