Time for more investment in agriculture research


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When European farmers first came to this part of the world, their initial survival depended on their ability to build themselves some sort of shelter, carve up unbroken prairie and grow enough to eat through the winter.

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When European farmers first came to this part of the world, their initial survival depended on their ability to build themselves some sort of shelter, carve up unbroken prairie and grow enough to eat through the winter.

Many brought seeds from the old country, varieties that were poorly adapted to an unforgiving environment that boasted brutal winters, short but intense growing seasons, fragile soils and a lot less rain than could be counted on back home.

It became clear that the government’s grand experiment to plant immigrants on land it had snatched from this country’s first inhabitants to ensure the Americans didn’t snatch it from Canada wasn’t going to end well without some interventions.

The federal department of agriculture was created in 1867 and a network of Dominion Research Farms established to ensure farmers had the tools and genetics needed to survive, and to transform agriculture from subsistence into an economic driver for the country.

For much of the next century, Agriculture Canada and publicly funded universities basically owned the country’s agricultural research mandate. That responsibility became more fiscally onerous as the industry grew, its research needs became more complex and the competition for taxpayer dollars grew more intense.

However, with a research budget of around $650 million annually, 400 scientists and their assorted support staff, and a national network of 20 research stations and 30 satellite stations, the Canadian government remains the largest investor in agricultural research.

So when it changes tack, as it did when Agriculture and AgriFood Canada’s new science strategy quietly rolled out last fall, it’s bound to create some waves.

“With the climate crisis looming, research on incremental productivity gains will not protect the industry from the volatility of a changing environment,” the document says. “An effective response will require a paradigm shift.”

Instead of the previous strategic objectives of increasing productivity, improving environmental performance, improving traits for food and non-food uses, and addressing threats to the agriculture and agri-food chain, the new strategy takes a more integrated approach.

It will now support research focused on mitigating and adapting to climate change, increasing the resiliency of agro-ecosystems, advancing the circular economy by developing value-added opportunities, and accelerating the digital transformation of the agriculture and agri-food sector.

Some immediately concluded that AAFC doesn’t care about helping farmers increase their yields anymore; that it has bought into the fashionable lexicon around environmental sustainability at the expense of research that helps farmers pay the bills.

That’s not exactly true. Sustainability and productivity aren’t mutually exclusive. However, because of AAFC’s role as an innovation incubator and research partner, this does mean that applications for research funding and project proposals will be framed in a much broader context. Research efforts will draw from a wider pool of knowledge, including Indigenous perspectives.

“A shift toward the sustainable agriculture paradigm will promote a systems approach in which productivity, environmental performance, and resilience are central to the scientific questions the department is contributing to solving,” it says.

It remains to be seen how this policy will be expressed in practice. There has already been social media chatter about long-standing federal projects that will no longer be supported. Research is a long-term play; only time will tell us whether those decisions were the right calls.

Here’s what we do know. The days of governments footing the entire bill are over. Globally, the public’s share of investment in agricultural research is around 50 per cent — and investments have been stagnant or declining.

The Canadian government has pulled back over the past three decades and looked to the private sector to handle genetic improvements and technologies where investments can be recouped from the marketplace.

As well, commodity commissions funded by voluntary farmer checkoffs invest in applied research that helps farmers connect new technologies with agronomic practices to boost yields. However, those groups wage a constant battle convincing individual farmers not to withdraw their support.

The payback from investments in agricultural research are extraordinarily high, typically 10-to-one or higher. Ratios like that signal that collectively, we aren’t investing enough.

Whatever its focus, AAFC’s new strategy needs to amplify research investment, not diminish it.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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