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Farmer Check-off driving new opportunities for wheat and barley

Date posted: May 30, 2006

The investment of western Canadian farmers is helping drive emerging opportunities for wheat and barley in premium health foods, functional foods, nutraceuticals and alternate uses.

Through the Wheat and Barley Check-off Funds, administered by Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), farmers are investing in the development of new wheat and barley varieties with a range of key traits to fit market potential in these areas.

"Research and development is something that throughout the history of Canadian agriculture has delivered strong returns and helped our industry adapt and grow," says Dr. Keith Degenhardt, a Hughenden, Alta., producer and Chair of WGRF. "Even in a period of challenging times, it's something we as farmers can look to as a high-return investment and as a means to build a stronger future."

In WGRF's new long-term agreements with research institutions, which set targets for the use of Check-off Funds, there is a greater emphasis on innovation than ever before, notes Degenhardt. Performance characteristics to generate higher yields and top quality remain a core priority, but added to those are an increased number of targets to create and capitalize on new opportunities for the wheat and barley crops.

"There are all sorts of avenues we have to look at as producers, to fund the research that gives us the tools to innovate," says Degenhardt. "We're looking at food, feed, fibre, biofuel, nutraceuticals - a whole range of options. We're also looking at new innovations for traditional wheat and barley uses. Farmers need all these tools at their disposal in order to be more competitive and sustainable."

More information on this effort is featured in the new, May edition of WGRF's Industry Report newsletter, available at

A key highlight is the new potential in functional foods and nutraceuticals. Ten years ago, these terms were relatively foreign to many Canadian farmers. But today they represent one of the fastest-growing areas of opportunity in food production, with world consumption estimated at up to $250 billion annually.

It's not that functional foods and nutraceuticals are all necessarily new - far from it. But they describe a new way food is being viewed by consumers and marketed by food companies. They also represent tremendous market potential for grains.

In basic terms, a functional food is a food or food ingredient that has been linked to specific health benefits beyond basic nutrition. For example, a food ingredient might be shown to directly lower the risk of a specific chronic disease.

Barley is a great example of the potential. Science has unveiled the grain as a very good source of beta-glucan soluble fibre. It also contains antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients such as phenolics and lignans. Each component has biological activities that have been linked to health benefits, including reduced risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

"With the strong outlook for this area, Barley Check-off Fund allocations to hulless food barley breeding were set at 10 percent under the new barley breeding agreements implemented during 2005," says Degenhardt.

The May edition of Industry Report also discusses potential for hard white wheat, low-phytate barley and organic wheat, while offering perspective from a leading barley breeder on the importance of funding "pure innovation" research.

Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source: Western Grains Research Foundation

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