Funding for ‘curiosity research’ Public and private sector groups need incentives to invest in wheat, says Stephen Morgan Jones
Agriculture Canada’s top prairie research bureaucrat is warning that the country’s basic wheat research is falling behind competitors and needs an injection of funds from government and the private sector to stay apace.
Stephen Morgan Jones, the department’s science and technology branch director general for the Prairies, said Canada’s basic science funding commitment is at the “lower end” of what is needed.
As well, there must be more emphasis on basic “curiosity research” that leads to long-term sector development.
“I don’t disagree that there’s been an emphasis on industry-driven or producer-driven partnerships, which gives us a five-year funding window … and it allows us to produce competitive varieties for the farming industry,” he said after a November speech to a grain industry symposium in Ottawa.
“But we need to re-enter the debate about who does the basic cell work.”
Morgan Jones said the portion of research funding dedicated to “curiosity research” that has a 10 or 15 year timeline should be at least 20 to 30 percent.
“My estimate is now it would be in that 20 percent area, so we are at the lower end.”
He said the government should change plant breeders’ rights rules to make it more attractive for private sector investors.
“Clearly there is an innovation gap and we need to see it filled,” he said.
However, the grain symposium, which was sponsored by the Canada Grains Council and Grain Growers of Canada, focused more on what the federal government should be doing to boost basic wheat research.
Wilf Keller, president of Ag-West Bio, bemoaned the decline in federal funding of “discovery research.”
“We need a strong public presence,” he said.
“Society has to step up to the plate. What is the public space going to be over the next 20 years?”
Darcy Pawlik, North American head of cereals for Syngenta, bragged about his company’s long-time investment in Canadian wheat breeding, but he also argued that a strong government commitment is needed.
“Without public investment, we wouldn’t have the wheat program,” he said.
Pawlik said the next 10 years of government commitment to basic wheat research is uncertain.
The recent federal emphasis has been on short-term investment to research “clusters” aimed at quick results for the industry.
Don Dewar, board member of the Western Grains Research Foundation and a former Manitoba farm leader, was blunt.
“Agriculture Canada has been withdrawing from discovery research,” he told the meeting.
“How do we turn that bus around?”
Morgan Jones said in an interview the key is changing the “business model” to make it more attractive for the private sector to invest in wheat breeding, including better royalty returns on seed sales.
He said grain farmers are unlikely to increase the $6 million they already contribute to the Western Grains Research Foundation through checkoffs.
“If we want to look at wanting to improve on what we do right now, it will take more money and it really has to come from the private sector so the business model has to change.”
The federal researcher said that while Canadian wheat genetics and yields are improving annually at less than one percent, Australia sees advances 50 percent higher.
“At the end of the day, we can do better than .7 percent and we need more money to do that,” he said.
“The money really has to come from the private sector.”