(April 24, 2013) Not many non-historians know that the ancient Roman Empire ran on wheat.  Its major grain growing area was in North Africa, centered on present day Tunisia.  Roman wheat farms were typically about sixteen hundred acres and supported about 10 coloni families and the estate owner.  The families did the work and made extra money growing dates, olives, and exotic birds for Roman tables.

Roman Harvester 170 BC

Roman Harvester 170 BC

Roman wheat was moved to port in half ton capacity carts pulled by oxen owned by the Roman military.  Then commercial ships would move it across the Mediterranean into state owned and regulated warehouses for distribution.  In ancient Rome the wheat crop was so important that meddling with wheat production or transportation was the only crime that carried an automatic and immediate death penalty.  On April 25, feasts, celebrations, and sacrifices were held in honour of the Roman god of wheat rust known as Robigus in the hopes of avoiding crop failure, for when the Roman wheat harvest failed, rebellions in the colonies and riots in the cities soon followed.

Rather than make sacrifices to the god of rust, western Canadian farmers and Ottawa established and funded the most sophisticated system of cereals plant breeding ever seen in human history.  The modern grain trade started with Canada’s Dominion Cerealist Charles Saunders developing Marquis Wheat and freely distributing it.  That tradition continues on a cost recovery basis, through the Western Grains Research Foundation and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) research stations across Canada.  There scientists develop promising strains of various cereals, and test them to see if they really work and meet our quality standards.  The strain is then registered as a variety and multiplied so there is enough seed to pass on to pedigreed seed growers who multiply the variety and sell the seed to farmers.

Many Canadians, however, do not know that aside from destroying the Canadian Wheat Board and killing our quality assurance system by crippling the Canadian Grain Commission, Ottawa’s Conservatives have also been busy destroying AAFC public cereal crop research even though it is funded by farmers and the public.

Earlier this year Minister Ritz announced the closure of the AAFC Cereals Research Center in Winnipeg (originally established in 1925 as the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory) and the firing of critical scientific personnel.  A demoralized staff will be sent to research stations in Brandon and Morden, Manitoba.  The list of eminent scientists being fired, retired, or simply quitting could go on for several paragraphs but the loss of AAFC’s only scientist working on Durum wheat and the closing of a research station and its team which was working on fusarium blight resistant wheat is a demonstration of the vandalism being carried out.

Under Minister Ritz, farmers and the public will still pay for upstream germplasm development but private companies would then be given this basic material to develop seeds for farmers.  Setting aside the fact privately developed seed is much more expensive than seed developed under our current system, would a giant private seed company that also manufactures insecticides, as most of them do, have carried forward development of the midge resistant wheats farmers now use?

All this is typical of the short sighted anti-science policies we have come to know from Ottawa’s Conservatives.  Unfortunately for those who like to eat, the Roman god of rust has apparently awoken.  A new rust strain has shown up in Africa, central Europe, and California.  UG 99 apparently decimates wheat and other cereal crops and Canada’s ability to breed new rust resistant wheat strains has been sabotaged.  There is now much less capacity to cope with this menace simply because although western Canada had the most advanced and sophisticated wheat and cereals grain research institutions and scientists on the planet, brother Harper and his less than constructive puppet agriculture Minister have crippled it all.

Wheat is the staff of life and if the initial indications about the virulence of this new rust strain prove correct, there will be serious consequences for consumers around the world.  Now  that our public plant breeding institutions have been severely compromised by the Conservatives, holding a feast and begging the god of rust to go elsewhere may be our best option until the grownups can take charge of Ottawa and start undoing the damage done to our cereals research and development capacity.

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