Spaner, Dr. Dean

2013 Finalist: Innovation In Agricultural Science Sponsored By Dow AgroSciences Canada Inc.

Dr. Dean Spaner says that people probably wouldn’t describe him as patient.

Yet the professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta has tackled the minutia of plant breeding, which requires years of painstaking research in the field and lab – and patience. This year Dr. Spaner registered two separate varieties of wheat with the Prairie Grain Development Committee – the first hard red spring wheat lines developed in Alberta and approved for release since 1997.

It takes up to twelve years to develop a cultivar. The process requires extensive field work to determine everything from pest and weed control to yields, maturity rates, hardiness and more. Dr. Spaner started from scratch.

“How you do plant breeding well, is to focus on one thing – like making a plant rust resistant. Or fighting loose smut fungus,” he explains. “You spend a lot of time making tiny incremental discoveries.”

The two new wheat lines Dr. Spaner developed are high-yielding, mature early and have good resistance to stripe rust. This will make a difference in Alberta, where more than 11,000 farmers grow wheat, producing 7.6 million tonnes per year, primarily for export. Dr. Spaner’s diligence makes Alberta’s wheat producers more competitive and more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Dr. Spaner is interested in every facet of wheat, from the genes, to the seed, the plant, the grain and ultimately the bread baked. He combines his outstanding scientific expertise and technical knowledge with a love of the land, spending at least five months each year in the field.

“In life, there are ebbs and troughs,” he muses. “But throughout it all there has to be the desire to go work in fields over and over again, and do your job well.”

Dr. Spaner takes equal joy in being in the classroom and has trained dozens of graduate students who have gone on to make important contributions to plant breeding and agricultural research.

“I’m benefiting the agricultural community by educating future scientists who will shape the direction of agriculture and society,” he says. “More so than breeding crops, which is temporal, by helping to increase human capital I am serving a larger purpose.”

Dr. Spaner has worked in different areas of crop and plant breeding since 1978, including several international engagements and collaborations.

He leads a pioneering research program to develop breeding and agronomic strategies for organic production of wheat on the Canadian prairies. The program lays the groundwork for future research into organic grain production.

“I am following the trend that started at the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago, when the first plant breeders were women who selected crops from the wild,” he says, explaining that no GMO (genetically modified organism) wheat variety has been released to date.

In all of his work, Dr. Spaner is motivated to feed the world. He says “My parents always said the only thing you need to do is leave the world a better place than how you found it.”