As Agri-food drops off the policy radar, what does Canada stand to lose?

Posted on May 30, 2013

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by Kari Doerksen

In 2006, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada released its Science and Innovation Strategy: combine    

“Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry is a cornerstone of our economic and social fabric. The sector is a key contributor to the high quality of life enjoyed by citizens across the country. It is vital to our nation's economic success, currently producing some eight per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP), and accounting for one in eight jobs nationwide.”

Agriculture and agri-food is a key component in the Canadian economy. No one can dispute that. Now is the time for continued investment in this sector. What has happened over the past few years?

Agri-Food is falling off the federal science and technology policy radar.

In 2007 Industry Canada, the federal agency supporting research and development through various routes including NSERC and Genome Canada, announced a multi-year science and technology agenda Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage. This document outlines strategic priorities “in areas that are in the national interest from a social and economic perspective.”

“Basic and applied science across all disciplines, including natural sciences and engineering, social sciences and humanities, and health sciences, will be mobilized to support these priorities.” More energy and resources would be focused on the following areas:

  • Environmental science and technologies
  • Natural resources and energy
  • Health and related life sciences and technologies
  • Information and communications technologies

Notice anything missing? Yep, agriculture and agri-food. While bits could be shoehorned into the four areas (e.g. phytoremediation, biofuels, nutraceuticals and precision farming), the core is explicitly excluded.  

An industry that feeds you and feeds the world is worth investing in.

Agri-Food research and development warrants public support. We need to communicate these key messages when speaking with politicians and policy makers.

There are economic reasons:

  • Experience tells us that the rates of return on agriculture and agri-food R&D investment are high, with benefit –cost ratios estimated in the range of 20:1 and higher (See articles by Alston, Gray and Malla).
  • Historically, public research has played a vital role in the development of Canadian agriculture and agri-food.

The canola story is often held up as an example of an innovation funded with public research dollars. Canola gave Western Canadian farmers an opportunity to diversify, and made no-till agriculture feasible.

The impact of reduced-till and no-till farming cannot be ignored. Today, approximately 80% of Saskatchewan farmland is no-till. This is due largely to the efforts of scientific pioneers like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researcher Guy Lafond, who had a passion for bringing science to the field – helping farmers conserve precious soil organic matter and ultimately the sustainability of the farm. Where would agriculture be today if Canada had not made an investment in someone like Lafond?  

And there are societal reasons:

  • Investment in agricultural research is not just about increased productivity, but sustainable productivity. Technologies that reduce environmental impact and sustain farming operations will benefit all Canadians.
  • Multifaceted and multidisciplinary research and development strategies are required to meet global food security goals. Private investment cannot and will not do it alone. New and improved science and technology must be part of the global food security toolbox.

Just this week, the Chicago Council on Global affairs issued a report recommending that the United States "double [its] investments in agricultural and food research between now and 2023.” This US based initiative highlights the relative complacency in Canada, where agriculture and agri-food issues are often overlooked.

To be fair, there are federal initiatives in place that fund research and development programs, including programs announced as part of Growing Forward 2. But when we look at the enormity of the challenges and opportunities ahead for the agri-food industry, it is clear that public funding through one route is not enough.

I’m not saying that alternate research and development models should not be explored. Absolutely! Let’s explore these new models including Public Private and Producer Partnerships (P4s). But let’s not forget that strategic long-term investments will reap economic and social benefits along the agri-food value chain.

What’s next? We need to work together to proactively engage our Provincial and Federal representatives and put Agri-Food back on the agenda

We are living in a time of almost overwhelming challenges and opportunities for agri-food, a time where science and technology are essential to meeting these challenges and capturing opportunities for the benefit of all Canadians, in a country where we have typically excelled in agri-food research and development. Let’s work together to put agriculture and agri-food back on the radar.  

Our messages must be:

The Agriculture and Agri-Food industry is vital to our nation's economic success, currently producing some eight per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP), and accounting for one in eight jobs nationwide.

Renewed Science and Technology R&D spending in the Agriculture and Agri-food will lead to economic, social and political benefits.

Rates of return on agriculture and agri-food R&D investment are high, with benefit –cost ratios estimated in the range of 20:1 and higher.

Sustainability is of common interest within the Agriculture industry and many Canadians. The public should work with industry to create sustainable solutions.

Private investment cannot and will not meet global food security goals alone. New and improved science and technology must be part of the global food security toolbox.

Kari Doerksen
is a Senior Project Manager at Genome Prairie
  • Christine Storer

    Posted on 07/06/2013

    Great to see issues clearly articulated. A further issue is the looming food shortage and the potential response of other countries around the world e.g. The Arab spring political changes and increased refugees looking to countries like Canada. These will flow into the other community priorities. Not having had food shortages for a long time often means people under estimate the urgency needed to respond to hunger and the extremes it dives actions.