Barley future not so certain

It’s a good thing barley is still used for making beer, otherwise its future might be even more shaky. Growing barley is still big business on the prairies, but it is coming under increasing pressure from advances in corn breeding, which is rapidly becoming the super plant of all time - all of it thanks to genetic engineering.

It’s a good thing barley is still used for making beer, otherwise its future might be even more shaky. Growing barley is still big business on the prairies, but it is coming under increasing pressure from advances in corn breeding, which is rapidly becoming the super plant of all time – all of it thanks to genetic engineering.

Corn yields over the past 20 years have increased from 70 to 150 bushels per acre and scientists believe the plant has the ability to see yields of as much as 400 bushels per acre. Compare that to barley where yields have remained virtually static at 40 to 80 bushels. Production costs for corn have also decreased over time mainly because GM has reduced the need for insecticides and multiple herbicide treatments. Corn costs will continue to decrease as more genetic traits are stacked into future varieties. Some of those will include more efficient use of nitrogen and drought resistance.

So what has barley going for it? Well, it’s still a useful crop for short growing season areas. It still works well for growing silage in areas that will not support other crops. Corn continues to have a major short coming and that is it needs heat and lots of it along with a longer growing season. Corn breeders continue to push the borders of corn growing areas by breeding varieties that need fewer heat units to thrive – but it’s a long battle. The high yielding GM (genetically modified) varieties are still not designed for most of the prairies – they will be long time in coming.

In the meantime the traditional corn growing US midwest is seeing an expansion of their corn-growing area along with the increased yield. That has seen ever increasing supplies of cheap grain corn on the market and that keeps pressure on the price of barley. The past few years has seen increasing quantities of corn being railed in by the train load into southern Alberta cattle feeding areas. Even the increased demand for corn in the American ethanol industry has impacted barley feeding. The by-product of the ethanol process is dried distillers gain (ddg). It’s a product that is readily accepted as a barley substitute or supplement and has seen increased use in Alberta feedlots. Barley just can’t win it seems.

Luckily for barley, radical advances in corn production on the prairies could be many years away. In the meantime, governments through various agencies and research establishments have begun to take the situation seriously by making funding available for barley breeding research. The idea is to breed more productive barley varieties by means of hybridization or development of winter barley. The elephant in the room of all this is GM technology which, at the present time, is not being used in creating better barley varieties. It’s not that it can’t be used in barley, but backward reactionary elements in the grain marketing system are holding back GM technology in wheat and barley variety development.

It can all be traced back to the European Union, who remain slaves to politically correct green groups’ influence and their anti-GM crusade. I should say that attitude is shared to a certain extent in some other cereal grain markets in Asia and Africa.

However, given a market advantage with GM cereals, countries in those areas would probably seize the opportunity.

That major roadblock also causes the big seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta to resist investing in barley variety development. Clearly, the quickest way to improve plant yields and production abilities is through genetic engineering. That process also gives seed companies a way to recoup their investment and make some profits. Standard breeding methods just aren’t attractive,

That leaves governments as the remaining source for barley variety development. That will see varieties being developed using traditional methods. As admirable as that may be, it is a slow process and success will be very incremental. In the meantime, GM corn breeding will continue to forge ahead – and its borders will inevitably expand. Worse yet, not just for barley growers but also for the cattle feeding industry – corn and its by-product ddgs will become so cheap relative to barley that cattle feeding will probably become even more concentrated closer to corn growing areas. GM barley might well have been its only hope – but it would seem that is not yet to be.

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