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Investment in agriculture is imperative

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Producing more food with the same or fewer resources has been one of humankind's most remarkable accomplishments.

From 1950 to 1990, yield improvements in global food production enabled farmers to feed a population that doubled to 5.3 billion people, with food prices declining by one per cent per year during that time.

But since 1990, the rate of yield improvements has slowed in most countries, including Canada. This pervasive slowdown is reflected in record high food prices and elevated concerns about food security.

If we don't reverse that trend, we're in trouble.

In the next 40 years, world food demand is expected to double again. And with climate change, new crop varieties are needed that can adapt to changing weather patterns and resist invasive plants, insects and disease. Rising incomes also increase demand for livestock products and for non-food bio-products such as biofuels, biofibres, biopharmaceuticals and bioplastics.

Meeting these needs without destroying the Earth's resource base depends on growth in agricultural productivity and efficiency.

To help meet these challenges, Canada must invest more in agricultural and food research -- the principal source of new technologies, environmental efficiencies, agricultural yield growth and nutritionally superior foods such as those enriched with Omega 3 and gluten-free products.

Studies show investments in agricultural and food research have very high internal rates of return and create benefits that generally exceed costs by 10 to one or more. Despite such evidence, agricultural and food research investment in Canada continues to languish.

Such investment can come from three sources: the public (through taxes), the producers (through commodity levies or "checkoffs") and the private sector (through product sales levies). What's needed is a holistic approach encompassing all three sources, as has been used effectively in Australia, where wheat research investment is now four times higher than in Canada.

Public funding is ideally suited to research with inadequate producer and private funding and to situations where the benefits of research go well beyond a specific product produced for a marketplace, such as for basic scientific research, where discoveries can have broad applications, and research that creates health and environmental benefits. But while the return on publicly funded research is very high, this type of investment must always compete with other uses of treasury funds.

Private research investment has been a powerful tool to improve yields when research firms can capture the value of their research through intellectual property rights (IPRs), such as has occurred with advances in proprietary poultry and hog genetics research. In North American hybrid crops (corn, canola, cotton) and biotech crops (soybeans, corn, canola), patent protections have stimulated a great deal of private research by global life-science firms.

With IPRs, producers pay upwards of 10 per cent of their expected gross income each year for the latest seed varieties. In turn, companies reinvest about 10 per cent of their seed sale revenue into research. The result has been a rapid improvement in crop performance and widespread producer adoption of these crops.

But with non-biotech and non-hybrid crops where IPRs are weaker (wheat, barley, oats, lentils, peas, flax etc.), there has been limited private investment, and generally slower yield gains.

Producer-funded research plays an important role for livestock and some crops. Levies are collected on farm product sales and then reinvested in research by producer-managed boards. The levy is equitable because the cost is borne by consumers and producers who most directly benefit from productivity improvement.

The success of the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation research program demonstrates how powerful this producer-funded model can be. But unfortunately, most Canadian research check-offs are set at levels far too low to provide adequate industry-driven research funding.

The social imperative to invest in improving the world's food production capacity in a sustainable way is clear. Now we need greater long-term public funding commitments to plant, animal and food research, a modern investment climate for private firms to benefit from their own research, and enhancements to increase use of the producer-controlled checkoff funding model.

Through increased research investment, Canada can "do well by doing good" -- creating economic benefits at home while helping to address pressing global food security challenges.

John Kennelly is dean of agriculture, life and environmental sciences, University of Alberta. Alastair Cribb collaborated in writing this piece. Cribb is dean of veterinary medicine, University of Calgary. Submitted on behalf of Canada's deans of agriculture and veterinary medicine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2012 A10

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