Food institute needs to identify focus of research

Without greater focus, the new Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan may end up being a waste of resources.
It’s difficult to criticize such a well-meaning initiative that has $35 million in support from PotashCorp and $15 million from the Saskatchewan government over seven years. How can you find fault with an institute trying to develop new ways to feed the world?
It’s the warm and fuzzy time of year and nothing is warmer and fuzzier than patting ourselves on the back for being so good at growing food and offering to share our production and expertise with a burgeoning world population.
But are the objectives really that altruistic?
PotashCorp tries to support the world price of potash by limiting how much it produces. Good business strategy. Maybe it’s not quite so good for farmers around the world who really need potash.
As farmers, we aren’t much different. When the price of canola is $14 a bushel, none of us will say, “you can have it for $12. That still generates a good profit.”
And while premier Brad Wall comes across as a genuinely caring human being, he was elected to forward the interests of Saskatchewan people. Certainly we should have compassion, but at the end of the day, we aren’t a charity.
As for the U of S, you’re hard-pressed to find any scientists who aren’t already working to capacity and beyond. Taking on new projects would seem to require bringing new people on board at a time when the university is wrestling with financial difficulties.
University president Ilene Busch-Vishniac talks about bringing all the institution’s expertise under one umbrella so everyone communicates and can focus on bigger problems. Yet plant breeders are already focused on enhanced yields and quality. What will they do differently just because an institute has been established?
Just like the general population, the university’s academic community is divided on key questions that are vital to the world’s food supply. For instance, should we push full throttle on the development of genetically modified wheat?
If you believe the projection that the world demand for food will increase 70 percent by 2050, should we be pulling out all the stops in an effort to produce more per acre?
Instead, wealthy consumers increasingly distrust technology and many have the misguided view that modern agriculture is inherently bad.
So just what is the food security institute going to do? The official pronouncements sometimes talk about boosting crop yields, sometimes mention grain storage problems in other countries and sometimes sound like the institute will be more like a policy think-tank.
If it’s going to take such a broad approach, $50 million over seven years won’t go far.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, established in 1945, now spends a couple billion dollars a year trying to defeat world hunger. Does Saskatchewan really need a mini-FAO?
The university is going to assemble a board and hire an interim executive director and then ask an international panel for input on what research should be done.
The institute won’t end up with much of a legacy if it dribbles small amounts of money to a large number of seemingly worthy projects or if it get embroiled in never-ending studies and conferences.
Hopefully, it will identify one or two specific areas of research in which Saskatchewan can truly make a world contribution.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]