Used to make beer, feed livestock and lower cholesterol in people, barley has few rivals when it comes to versatility. Yet industry officials believe the cereal grain’s full potential remains untapped.
A federal government’s pledge of $8 million for barley research could help change this. Announced at the Lacombe Research Centre on Tuesday, the money will find its way into the Alberta Barley Commission’s “barley research cluster,” which includes nearly 30 projects focused on improving the quality and profitability of malt, feed and food barley.
“In putting together this application, we targeted scientists and researchers who present concrete plans to deliver tangible results,” said Matt Sawyer, chairman of the Alberta Barley Commission.
Barley’s biggest markets — malt and feed — will receive much of the researchers’ attention.
“By creating malt with certain traits through research we will entice new buyers looking for highly specific malt characteristics,” said Sawyer, adding that this should help maintain and expand the list of international customers.
There is also room for improvement when it comes to livestock feed, said Sawyer.
“We’re committed to improving feed quality to ensure that livestock and the livestock industry can reap the full benefit of barley. Developing unique varieties with specific levels of starch, phytate and fat is a top priority for Alberta barley.”
Capitalizing on the health benefits associated with barley in people’s diets will also be a focus.
“Today, barley goes into a lot more than beer and beef rations,” said federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who was in Lacombe for the funding announcement.
“More and more consumers are looking to barley as a nutritional food choice.”
Health Canada has accepted scientific evidence that the beta-glucan in barley can reduce blood cholesterol, and lower the risk of heart disease.
Ritz also noted that the barley research cluster will provide farmers with guidance concerning production.
“The dollars we are investing, along with the Alberta Barley Commission, will help farmers with new strategies to control weeds and disease, while safeguarding the environment and reducing your overall input costs.”
John O’Donovan, a research scientist at the Lacombe Research Centre who specializes in agronomy, agreed.
“We’re hoping to solve a lot of issues that barley growers deal with through the development of best management practices.”
Neil Harker, a research scientist at the Lacombe Research Centre who focuses on weed science, said the barley research will also provide insights into best practices related to the crops that are rotated with barley.
“The barley announcement will enhance all the other crop areas as well.”
Jeff Stewart, director for research and development for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Alberta, said the funding is valuable because it supports research in a variety of places — geographically and otherwise.
“It brings together large multi-disciplinary teams, not only with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, but at universities and provincial organizations, and the stakeholders as well.”
Sawyer thinks the research will help barley achieve its potential, and prompt farmers to seed more of it.
“We’re trying to make it more profitable for producers.”