Grain Classification Roadblocks

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Chaos theory, the current rage in science circles, basically says that within a universe that is quite random there are underlying connections and patterns. One of its more appealing metaphors goes, “If a butterfly flaps its wings in New York, there is a hurricane in Tokyo.” Similarly, decisions in one sector of public policy can have important implications for other, completely unrelated sectors.

Take the system of Kernel Visual Distinguishability (KVD), which governs how grains are registered and classified. In the case of wheat, for example, seven classes have been assigned a kernel rating that combines seed coat colour and physical configuration. A variety of wheat with the kernel shape and colour within one of the wheat classes will have specific quality characteristics. All of this is administered by the Winnipeg-based Canadian Grains Commission (CGC).

Why is this important? The KVD system is the cornerstone of Western Canada’s grain quality assurance system. This means that our grain export customers are assured that the wheat they buy has the milling and baking characteristics they are paying for. By means of visually distinctions between wheat classes, grain inspectors and elevator companies can easily make sure that wheat shipments are not “contaminated” with unlicensed or inferior varieties. According to Norman Woodbeck, the Acting Chief Grain Inspector for Canada the KVD system is “convenient, simple, and effective.”

But change is the only constant in the world and western Canadian agriculture has undergone major changes in the last decade. Actually, we have never stopped and adapting to new economic realities is what we must do to survive. One of the new realities is that we are not nearly as reliant on grain exports as we once were. We are feeding and or processing more grain at home on the Prairies than ever before.

This is where the KVD issue gets interesting. Manitoba’s hog industry has undergone huge expansion and has become the economic backbone of many communities. Naturally, it requires feed grains and wheat is one of the most important. But a new scourge, fusarium, has stuck Manitoba Wheat infected by this fungus retains good feed qualities, with one significant exception — hogs cannot tolerate it. This erodes Manitoba’s advantage in hog production. Enter the wheat breeder, who must now develop fusarium-resistant wheat.

This has been done. The new feed wheat, called HY644, makes great hog feed but its registration was rejected by the CGC because of its poor milling quality and a distinguishability problem. That leaves us with a frustrated hog industry that is denied access to the feed wheat it needs because of a KVD system designed to support wheat exports.

Has the KVD system therefore outlived its usefulness? As in many debates, the answer is both yes and no. Even in decline, the wheat export business is very important to western Canada and the quality assurances provided to our customers makes our grain a premium product, a crucial selling point in a competitive and globalized economy. On the other hand, value-added enterprises and economic diversification are the keys to rural revitalization. And in order to help us adapt to new realities we must always be willing to critically examine how we do business. KVD is no exception.