Agri-Food Research with a Public Trust Lens

Posted on June 19, 2019

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There is no doubt that Canada has earned a world reputation as a producer and supplier of high quality and safe agri-food products. Today, "sustainable agriculture" is a common buzzword used in the Canadian agri-food sector. But what does sustainable agriculture mean? With a world population expected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, the demand for food will also be on the rise. Thus, the major goal in today's agri-food sector is to provide safe, healthy, and affordable food. 

But what if consumers don't trust the food we produce?

That's where agricultural research can play a role in reassuring the public that the methods used by the industry are safe and sustainable. Advancements in agriculture through scientific research are crucial for sustainable food production. There is a need to conduct research on modern agriculture technologies such as breeding techniques to develop new crop varieties (e.g. high yielding, disease resistant etc.), improvement of livestock competitiveness, feeding systems and development of novel food, feed and bioproduct processing technologies.

Public trust plays an important role in scientific research. Today, consumers are interested in how their food is produced and if it's safe for their families to eat. Moreover, people are concerned about humane and safe handling of farm animals, pesticide use for crops, antibiotic and hormone use in livestock and the impact of farming on climate change. The scientific community needs to understand these concerns, address them through research and communicate their research findings with the industry and public. For this process to be successful, consumers need to have confidence in the research in order to accept their findings.

Currently, there are various misconceptions as well as concerns about modern agriculture. Wide exposure to various websites, social media and blogs that provide false information to the public have a huge impact on these misconceptions. It is the role of scientific research to debunk these myths and help people understand the facts related to their concerns. Good quality, timely, unbiased research that results in scientifically valid, ethically and economically viable innovations are needed to make informed choices.

Currently the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture has two research grant programs; the Agriculture Development Fund (ADF) and the Strategic Research Initiative (SRI). The ADF provides funding for agriculture research projects in crops, livestock, forages, processing, soils, environment, horticulture, and alternative crops. This is a competitive funding program that funds research projects based on their potential to create growth opportunities or enhance the competitiveness of the provincial agriculture industry. The ADF annually invests roughly $15 million for agriculture research. The SRI is a new targeted research grant program, which invests $500,000 per project per year. SRI is intended to target specific themes of interest selected by the Ministry after consultation with scientists, producer organizations and industry.

Amongst the ADF supported research, there are many research projects that address public concerns. The ADF has supported research projects exploring:

  • improving traditional, genetically engineered and other novel crop breeding technologies;
  • agriculture’s relationship to climate change;
  • reducing agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions;
  • reducing pesticide use by applying them in a more targeted way;
  • new practical livestock disease-prevention alternatives such as biosecurity and vaccination programs;
  • new antimicrobial products; and
  • research on hormone use and alternatives.

 

For example, the ADF recently funded a project on "Quantifying GHG emissions from beef cattle urine and dung in grazed pasture sod-seeded with non-bloat legumes." This project will investigate the GHG, specifically nitrous oxide emission from urine and dung patches of cattle in grazed pastures and will predict the impact of climate change on GHG emission from grazed pasture. Another recently funded ADF project is titled "Enhanced biosecurity measures to control growth of pathogens in antibiotic-free pig production."

With the recent ban on the use of antibiotics in animal feed and restricting its use only for veterinary treatments, many pig producers have reduced their overall use of antibiotics. In the antibiotic free production system, there is a need for an alternative sanitary and disinfection systems that can reduce exposure of animals to disease causing microbes and to prevent disease prevalence. The goal of this project is to develop enhanced biosecurity measures for antibiotic free pig production and for overall disease prevention.

Through projects like these, agriculture is made more sustainable and efficient, so producers can meet the growing demand for food around the world.

The Ministry encourages researchers to collaborate with industry players when applying for ADF and take a collaborative approach with producer organizations in funding research projects, so that the producer organizations can co-fund research projects that meet their research priorities. 

People are in search of credible sources of research they can trust. It is the role of researchers and funding organizations to understand the needs of the agri-food industry, as well as the needs and beliefs of the public. This will ultimately lead to increased public trust in research and the agriculture industry.

By Harsha Marambe
SK Ministry of Agriculture