Three years ago, Quebec’s Andre Gagnon and 10 other potato breeders located across the country got together to form the Canadian Private Potato Breeders Network. Their goal — to forge a stronger, collective voice.
“We are quite isolated,” says Gagnon, president of potato research firm Progest. “That’s why we started this network, to work together.”
Fellow breeder Peter VanderZaag, owner of Sunrise Potato in Ontario, feels there are exciting times ahead for Canadian potato researchers and breeders, but like Gagnon, stresses that teamwork is key. “We can’t have our heads in the sand. We can’t keep doing our own thing — we need to work together,” he says. “That’s what the network’s all about, and we want to do more collaborative work with other institutions in Canada as well.”
Now the CPPBN is working on getting a bigger say in how new potato varieties are developed and evaluated in Canada. While private breeders play an important role in potato research and development in this country, much of this work is done publically through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, N.B.
The CPPBN is calling for a shift in focus for the publicly funded potato program that would allow private breeders to take on a greater R&D role. “We think the AAFC should only focus on basic, upstream research and pre-breeding, and should help support us in doing the next steps beyond that,” says VanderZaag, adding that public researchers have the expertise and indispensible assets like the potato gene bank at their disposal that make them better suited for the lengthy, complex work involved in genetic research.
“We feel that the genetic resources that they have and the upstream research that they’re doing is extremely valuable to help us be more effective applied breeders,” VanderZaag says. Private breeders, he adds, are very well equipped in the area of applied or downstream research, but “where we’re handicapped is the molecular part of the equation.”
VanderZaag envisions a synergistic relationship between public and private researchers, with CPPBN leading the applied breeding research and variety evaluation efforts in the field. Under this model AAFC scientists could focus on “finding the right parental lines with immunity to certain diseases, or which have markers for certain traits like processing quality, that we can then use as parental lines for our breeding work,” he says.
AAFC provides parental lines to private breeders upon request, and the contents of its potato gene bank are also available to any researcher or educator upon request.
Christiane Deslauriers is the AAFC director general responsible for the Potato Research Centre. She agrees that upstream research is a core strength of the program: “AAFC has definitely got a role in upstream research,” she says. ”We have that kind of expertise, we have the kind of infrastructure, and it’s the role of government to do that kind of research where there’s less immediate return on investment.”
Process to Take Time
Deslauriers says AAFC is certainly open to the idea of a greater R&D role for private potato breeders — but stresses it’s a process that’s going to take some time. “You have to make sure that there are no holes in the innovation system,” she says. “The notion is that as the industry becomes more and more capable of doing different aspects of the program … we can transition to a model where they become more involved.”
We are quite isolated. That’s why we started this network, to work together.
— Andre Gagnon
According to Deslauriers, this kind of transitioning is already occurring through AAFC’s Potato Accelerated Release Program, in which promising potato varieties developed by PRC breeders are offered up for evaluation by private industry. “We started off doing the early release program so that people could get a look at material earlier. That means there’s a lot of the finishing work that is no longer done by AAFC, which allows us to do more of the upstream [research],” she says.
“I think we really need to work on it in an interactive, iterative way rather than us coming up with a plan and saying, ‘there, this is what we’re going to give you, you’d better be ready to take it.’ It’s a little bit like a complicated machine with lots of gears; the gears really need to mesh.”
According to VanderZaag, private breeders would like the process to move much more quickly. He says they see the AAFC accelerated release program as competition and not an effective approach to selecting promising clones for the diverse ecosystems of Canada and beyond. “That is where we come in.” says VanderZaag.
Deslauriers maintains it will always be necessary for AAFC potato breeders to do some applied research, “because you need to do field research in order to understand the traits and to see if they’re being expressed properly.”
Numerous Success Stories
Members of the CPPBN have enjoyed numerous successes working with processors and other industry partners. “The private breeders are alive and well and are doing great things,” says VanderZaag.
Well-known examples include the successful Prospect potato that Robert and Joyce Coffin developed for Prince Edward Island’s Cavendish Farms and the marketing prowess of Western Canada’s Little Potato Company. VanderZaag, whose own breeding efforts are linked to potato chip processors, says “we all have our different niches, and we work with partners who are always looking for these new, improved traits.”
Like other CPPBN members, VanderZaag already collaborates with university breeding programs. He says one future option for private breeders would be to rely even more on institutions like Laval University or the University of Guelph for sourcing genetic material, but that would likely be more expensive than striking a deal with AAFC. What we would prefer is a partnership with AAFC and work together with them.”
A potential obstacle to that happening involves proprietary rights to true potato seed produced by researchers. According to VanderZaag, true seed is freely distributed and exchanged between breeders in many areas of the world, including the United States. Breeders can claim proprietary rights to selections developed from this true seed, but not the true seed itself.
In this country, AAFC maintains proprietary rights to the true seed it develops. AAFC says it is involved in collaborative breeding research with several industry and academic partners, and that the terms of these collaborations are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
VanderZaag and Gagnon maintain the system needs to change to enable greater sharing of information and knowledge between breeders. As an example, Gagnon points to new gene replication techniques that can shave years off the time required to create successful varieties under traditional breeding programs. Breeding potatoes, he says, is “far more complicated than wheat or cereals…. We really need those new tools to help us go faster.”
AAFC says it is working on new techniques based on genomic selection or prediction, with the goal of making potato breeding more efficient and competitive with other crops.
VanderZaag acknowledges there may be some resistance to the idea of the bulk of Canada’s applied potato breeding research moving into private sector hands. “I think at this point… there may not be enough general confidence that the private breeders can pull this off,” he says. “I think those are concerns we have to allay just by going up to the plate and doing it.”
Deslauriers, on the other hand, believes it’s in everyone’s best interests to take more time to carefully map out a way forward. “I think that the important thing is to work together with the industry to make a smooth transition,” she says. “You want something that you’re going to be able to plan properly and [are] able to feed into it as it’s developing, so that you’re not causing a shock in the system.”
Potato Breeding Working Group
These kinds of discussions are already taking place, through a Canadian Potato Council potato breeding working group that was formed last year. It is comprised of representatives from regional grower associations and the private breeders network, along with AAFC potato scientists and administrators.
Mary Kay Sonier, seed co-ordinator with the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, chairs the group. “What we’re discussing is the future of potato breeding in Canada, what it should look like — who should have responsibility for what, how can we collaborate. Research and development is essential to our industry like any other industry. If you don’t keep moving ahead, you fall behind pretty quickly,” she says.
“We’d like to see the government continue on the high tech end of the breeding,” says Sonier, pointing to the significant infrastructure and secure funding that are essential for productive long-term, upstream potato research.
“But when it comes down to the field research end, we see a greater role for industry in that,” she says, adding one possible path is having private researchers work closely with grower associations and provincial organizations in different parts of the country to develop and assess promising potato lines.
Tracy Shinners-Carnelley of Manitoba’s Peak of the Market chairs the Canadian Potato Council’s research working group, out of which the potato breeding working group was formed. She believes it’s essential for the industry to come up with a potato breeding and evaluation system that makes the best use of public and private research.
“There’s a place for both, there’s a need for both,” Shinners-Carnelley says. “It’s important that we develop a model that has all interested stakeholders in potato breeding working together, so we can do it as effectively as possible and also as efficiently as possible.”
“Potato breeding is expensive and it takes a lot of time. Given the nature of the work that we’re doing, I think that it’s of utmost importance that our approach going forward looks at how we best do that given the limited capacity we have, but also the limited financial resources we have to fund this kind of work.”
Budget cuts to AAFC have led to speculation that the federal government could eventually get out of the business of potato breeding altogether. That’s not something private breeders like VanderZaag and Gagnon would like to see, nor would most others in the Canadian potato industry.
“We’re in agreement with the private breeders that we don’t want the Canadian government just to get out of potato breeding tomorrow,” says Sonier.
Deslauriers insists that’s not going to happen. She describes funding for the PRC, which was completely renovated in the early 2000s, as “fairly secure” and says “there’s no discussion about discontinuing support for the Potato Research Centre” or its potato breeding efforts.
Support for Private Breeders
Peter VanderZaag and Andre Gagnon of the Canadian Private Potato Breeders Network maintain the Harper government is a strong supporter of private potato breeding in Canada, referring to a letter that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz sent the CPPBN in 2012.
The letter refers to CPPBN as “one of the key potato stakeholder groups in Canada” and says, “AAFC looks forward to working with your organization to explore potential partnerships on research projects of mutual interest.”
Another sign of support for private breeders is Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act, which contains proposed amendments to Canada’s Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) legislation that would bring it in line with much of the rest of the world.
Canada is one of a small minority of members of the International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) whose legislation does not conform to the most recent convention (UPOV 1991). Under that convention, breeders have to make their protected varieties available to other breeders for research and to use for the development of new varieties.
The Canadian Potato Council is a member of Partners in Innovation, a coalition of Canadian agricultural commissions and growers’ groups that support Bill C-18. It maintains the proposed PBR amendments will open opportunities for plant breeders in Canada and outside of our borders to deliver superior varieties to Canadian farmers.
According to VanderZaag, Bill C-18 is a good thing for the CPPBN. “It does provide more protection and more incentive for the private breeder,” he says.