With the pandemic and the public’s taking more of a keen interest on essentials such as where their food comes from and its safety, many in Swift Current and southwest Saskatchewan know the name of Dr. Ron DePauw. DePauw’s experience as the Senior Principal Research Scientist and Senior Principal Wheat Breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s research station over a 42-year career speaks for itself. Numerous awards, recognitions and has been published in hundreds of scientific publications. He has also been a breeder or co-breeder of a combined 13 varieties of Canada Prairie Spring (red or white) Wheat, 17 varieties of durum and 28 varieties of Canadian Western Spring Wheat...to name a few.
He is retired from Agriculture Canada and while he is has another paid job now with SeCan (SeCan which is a not-for-profit national seed association) which takes a lot of his time, he works pro bono and is board member of the Borlaug Training Foundation.
He works with plant scientists from all over the world through various teleconferencing means to offer support, advice and mentoring-type help. These scientists are trying to” fight world hunger by improving crops. These scientists work together with other researchers and farmers to understand challenges that impact harvest, then work to develop new plant varieties to meet farmers’ needs.” It was something DePauw has been of interest to him for a long time.
“I strongly believe that people share common aspirations of wanting a family, a life, and means to sustain life such as food, health and safety. I have wanted to provide opportunities for people to achieve this where they are and not have to migrate to find it,” explains DePauw. “I first became aware of the CIMMYT Wheat program in Mexico, lead by Dr. Norman Borlaug, in 1968-69. As a graduate student I was multiplying seed of my experimental materials for my PhD in the CIMMYT nursery in Ciudad Obregon Mexico. CIMMYT Mexico is like the mecca for wheat. This was the beginning of my international association with wheat scientists. I have made numerous trips over the years and maintained contact with CIMMYT scientists and other international scientists. I’ve given lectures to the young wheat scientists from around the world who receive a six month training course at CIMMYT (https://www.cimmyt.org/work/wheat-research/).”
A lot of the scientists he works with are from the United States, but there are others who he and others talk too are from around the world. He says that he has learned along the way and that has kept his interest because he loves learning. Just even from the non-scientific aspects, he has to learn how to adapt with new technology and new views on thinking and experiences.
“The challenge will be to get the new scientists to focus on delivering their new knowledge and technology for the benefit of others. They need to include a practical approach to produce food in an environmentally sustainable manner and meet the challenges of climate change,” explains DePauw. “Because we have primarily an urban population, most of the new scientists have no connection to agriculture. Most new scientists are like other young people who have not even grown a vegetable in their own yard.”
In addition, the type of requests and info have changed since the pandemic has hit. DePauw explains that the 2020 Wheat Improvement Course was to run from Feb. 3 to May 29. About 35 young scientists were in training with CIMMYT near Mexico City and in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, in NW Mexico. He was booked on flights to Oregon and to give a lecture to the trainees March 19. Starting about March 16, many countries called their citizens home because of COVID-19. The CIMMYT staff had to rush to book flights to get these young people back to their home countries.
There is a lot of work to be done to feed the world and with weather patterns, pests and crop diseases changing and which vary all over the world, it is important to do as much as possible to produce the best crops all over the world.
The Borlaug Training Foundation’s role is that it supports the training of young scientists from lesser developed economies that have wheat in the cropping system.
“Globally, wheat scientists are trying to meet the demand for food in an environmentally sustainable manner. Wheat accounts for about 22% of the calories and 20% of the protein consumed by humans,” explains DePauw. “It is one of the three primary food crops. New wheat varieties with improved abiotic responses combined with robust biotic resistance, enhanced micro-nutrients and functional quality will contribute to UN FAO Sustainable Development Goal #2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture) as well as adaptation to climate change, reduced erosion and contamination of water sheds, and environmental sustainability.”
Most of DePauw’s time is spent as a science advisor to SeCan. The Canadian government science policy steered towards greater industry involvement in research and development, namely business-led initiatives. SeCan has been involved in funding research on genetic enhancement to deliver “field-ready” cultivars.
SeCan has partnered with others such as the Canadian Field Crops Research Alliance and is co-funding projects in the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program on wheat, barley, oat, and pulses. CAP is a five-year program which ends March 2023) that involves $3 billion investment by federal, provincial and territorial governments “to strengthen the agriculture and agri-food sector.”
Also, SeCan has returned over $100m in royalties to breeding institutions.
He notes he has participated in “priority setting, assessment of letters of intent, assessment of full research proposals, and annual reviews of research project.”
When Borlaug wants his time they let others know when he can help them.
“In Canada, SeCan notifies other breeding institutions that I’m available. I respond to the invitations. I provide on-site training,” explains DePauw.
“Digital communication that includes video of course is a big component. I’m enjoying very much being invited to assist other, and to provide feed-back. Outside Canada, the mentoring has been face-to-face with a combination of seminars and hands-on training in nurseries.
DePauw still lives in Swift Current but is constantly on the go, something that will never change.
He misses the research centre but admittedly is glad to not have to worry about the non-research duties he had while with Agriculture Canada.
“I have mixed feelings. I enjoy that I’m not responsible for writing research grants to obtain funding; I’m not responsible for implement research grants; I’m not responsible for hiring and supervising people; and I’m not responsible for writing research reports,” explains DePauw.
“I miss working with a great Wheat Genetic Enhancement Team. I miss the thrill of new insights and new gene combinations that work in farmer fields. I miss the positive feedback from farmers who purchased seed of our new varieties, liked their performance and were excited to grow more acres the next year. I’m extremely fortunate to be a science advisor to SeCan which is Canada’s Seed Partner and to be a Director on the Borlaug Training Foundation.”