As food products become increasingly important exports for Canada, according to the Conference Board of Canada, two kinds of crops are illustrations of how research and innovation play a key role in developing an industry.
Four decades ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Western Canadian farmer who could identify a pulse crop let alone plant one. Pulses, for those who still aren't familiar, are the dry peas, lentils, chickpeas and beans that are staples of diets across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
Today, Canada is one of the world's biggest exporters, with annual sales of $2.1-billion, according to a 2009 pulse industry overview prepared by Agriculture Canada. Production has nearly quadrupled in the past two decades to four million tonnes a year, mainly from Saskatchewan.
The storyline is much the same for canola, which was developed at Western Canadian universities by transforming rapeseed into an edible oilseed crop. Today, Canada is the world's largest exporter of canola, with exports of seed, oil and meal totalling $8.5-billion, according to Statistics Canada's international merchandise trade database.
How Canada rose to the top of global canola and pulse production is the story of carefully planned research initiatives that began in government and university labs and gradually morphed into multimillion-dollar programs shared by growers, industry and the public sector.
"Investment in innovation is one of the pillars of the industry," said Patti Miller, president of the Canola Council of Canada. "It's how the crop was created and it's how we succeeded."
In recent years, jointly funded public and private research initiatives have, for example, studied the nutritional impact of canola oil and meal products, Ms. Miller said.
In pulse crop research, the biggest single source of funding is the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, which collects a 1-per-cent levy from the province's 17,000 growers. Last year, it collected $11.9-million and funnelled 60 per cent of it into research programs to develop new varieties to suit Western Canada's growing climate, as well as study new uses for the crops.
Ottawa kicks in about $2.1-million a year for various research and marketing programs, and the Saskatchewan government contributes roughly $1.8-million per year, said Abdul Jalil, executive director of research at the Ministry of Agriculture.
The research initiatives drew praise from a recent Conference Board report on food innovation that criticized Canada's overall innovation performance in the food business, saying many farmers, manufacturers, retailers and food scientists aren't meeting their potential.
But the report, entitled "Competing for the Bronze: Innovation Performance in the Canadian Food Industry," singled out the pulse and canola sectors as exceptions, citing research and development investments that paved the way for rising yields, improved quality and soaring exports. Both sectors are "prominent examples of Canadian successes in agricultural innovation," the report said.
In pulse crops, the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers levy has helped the industry "conduct research and diffuse innovations that contribute to its world-leading performance, " the report said.
Daniel Munro, who co-authored the report, said research initiatives had a direct impact on the quality of crops produced. As well, both sectors recognized the health benefits of their products – pulse crops are high in protein and canola oil is low in saturated fat – and directed research toward exploring the nutritional benefits of their products.
"They're doing these things at a time when there is a need for these kinds of products," Mr. Munro said. "They had a great opportunity and were prepared to take it."
The idea for the pulses levy, which is mandatory and non-refundable, came from the growers, to build on the early success of the University of Saskatchewan's Crop Development Centre, established in 1971 and headed a year later by Professor Al Slinkard, a pea expert from the University of Idaho who set out to find alternatives to wheat production because of sinking prices caused by a world glut.
He developed a variety of lentil called the Laird that could be adapted to Saskatchewan's growing climate, and trained farmers how to grow and harvest the crops. Those lentils "just grew and grew," said Prof. Slinkard, and farmers found markets in China, India, Bangladesh and North Africa.
"I saw the potential here," Prof. Slinkard, now retired, said in an interview. "There was 46 million acres here of cultivated land. All they grew was wheat, barley and hay."
With pulse crops taking off, growers formed a research group and voted in 1983 to impose the 1-per-cent levy.
"What's different about the pulse industry is that the growers are the ones who made the major investments in the variety breeding research," said Carl Potts, executive director of the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers.
Although the growers' association levy is the biggest funder, Mr. Potts said the group works closely with public programs, in particular the University of Saskatchewan's Crop Development Centre, which still works on finding better varieties and improving management practices.
Research priorities are shifting to finding new uses for pulses, including using its flour and starch in cereals and pasta, Mr. Potts said.
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