Disruptive technologies are emerging everywhere, even in agriculture. These changes are often exciting for many producers, albeit a little scary for some.

A potentially disruptive development, recently announced by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, is their near-complete mapping of the wheat genome. Wheat breeders and research scientists around the world will soon be able to download and use this invaluable new resource to accelerate crop improvement programs and wheat genomics research. Curtis Pozniak, a CSGA-recognized plant breeder at the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre, has been one of the co-leaders in this unique public-private research consortium.

This breakthrough provides breeders with a blueprint of wheat genes to analyze and then use to develop improved varieties. But CSGA procedures and certification will be as important as ever, as seed is multiplied from small breeder plots to the large fields of Certified seed required for crop production, to preserve the varietal identity and purity of the new varieties.

Genetic Testing vs. Certifying ‘Varietal’ Identity 

The wheat genome is complicated: three sets of paired chromosomes (a hexaploid) with DNA that contains 17 billion base pairs. We don’t know yet what all the wheat genes do, which are dominant or recessive, or what determines the extent and frequency of their expression. We do know that these developments in wheat genotyping will speed up development of improved varieties.

But a seed variety (cultivar) is, by definition, a distinct, relatively uniform and stable phenotype and may consist of a population of closely related genotypes. Therefore, for seed varietal certification (the service provided in Canada by  CSGA and CFIA), genetic testing is still considered a useful supplement which, with these developments, might become more available and affordable in the future.

Certification of varietal identity, by CSGA and other member agencies of the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA), involves verifying the presence of characteristics that distinguish a new variety from other varieties. It’s basically the  traditionally combined verification of visually distinguishable characteristics, which inspectors and growers can see in the field, with risk reduction requirements for varietal impurities. Those risk reduction requirements include crop inspections that verify parent seed identity, previous land use, isolation distances and maximum impurity standards, as well as varietal identity verification testing.

Post-harvest seed testing requirements for CSGA certification have traditionally supplemented these risk reduction requirements, starting with hybridity testing for canola in the 1990s. In the past decade, several variety developers have used the CSGA option for Additional Certification Requirements for post-harvest seed testing. Recent examples that involve genetic testing include Triffid testing of reconstituted flax varieties and refuge variety testing for varietal blends of midge tolerant wheat.

Other AOSCA certification agencies have also introduced post-harvest variety verification seed testing. Protein electrophoresis testing is now required for seed oat certification in Minnesota and for certified wheat seed in North Dakota where DNA testing is used for field pea and barley seed varietal identity verification. Their certification process still includes the traditional crop inspection and other varietal impurity risk reduction requirements. But after that crop is harvested, they also require a sample to be submitted to ensure that there have been no mix-ups during the process of seed multiplication.

Future Wheat Seed Certification

At AOSCA, CSGA and other agencies continue to review new technologies and situations where basic certification requirements need to be updated. We recognize that lab tests may become a more integral part of the seed certification process. In this context, there has been growing interest in hybrid wheat in recent discussions at AOSCA and with variety developers.

Many expect a hybrid wheat variety in the marketplace in the near future as technology advances. Certification of hybrid wheat may involve more than one inspection and possibly post-harvest seed testing. CSGA is committed to helping develop a practical, reliable, cost-effective and competitive system for hybrid wheat seed certification for Canadian producers.

Production costs continue to rise for many crops and commodity prices might plateau or even decline. The future of wheat production depends on further innovation. CSGA will continue to provide a valuable service to the wheat sector as disruptive technologies change the face of this staple crop.

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