Food security relies on ag research

Producing more food with the same or fewer resources has been one of humankind’s most remarkable accomplishments.

From 1950 to 1990, yield improvements in global food production enabled farmers to feed a population that doubled to 5.3 billion, with food prices declining by one percent per year during that time.

But since 1990, the rate of yield improvements has slowed in most countries, including Canada. This pervasive slowdown is reflected in record high food prices and elevated concerns about food security.

If we don’t reverse that trend, we’re in trouble.

In the next 40 years, world food demand is expected to double again. With climate change, new crop varieties are needed that can adapt to changing weather patterns and resist invasive plants, insects and disease. Rising incomes also increase demand for livestock products and non-food bioproducts.

Meeting these needs without destroying the Earth’s resource base depends on growth in agricultural productivity and efficiency.

To help meet these challenges, Canada must invest more in agricultural and food research, which is the principal source of new technologies, environmental efficiencies, yield growth and nutritionally superior food.

Studies show that investments in agricultural and food research have high internal rates of return and create benefits that generally exceed costs by 10 to one or more.

Such investment can come from three sources: the public, through taxes; the producers, through commodity levies or checkoffs; and the private sector, through product sales levies.

What’s needed is a holistic appro-ach encompassing all three sources, as has been used effectively in Australia, where wheat research investment is now four times higher than in Canada.

Public funding is ideally suited to research with inadequate producer and private funding and to situations where the benefits of research go well beyond a specific product.

However, while the return on publicly funded research is high, this type of investment must always compete with other uses of treasury funds.

Private investment has been a powerful tool to improve yields when firms can capture the value of their research through intellectual property rights (IPRs), such as has occurred with advances in proprietary poultry and hog genetics.

In North American hybrid and biotech crops with patent protections have stimulated a great deal of private research.

With IPRs, producers pay 10 percent of their expected gross income each year for the latest seed varieties. In turn, companies reinvest about 10 percent of their seed sale revenue into research.

The results have been rapid im-provement in crop performance and widespread producer adoption of these crops.

However, there has been limited private investment and generally slower yield gains in non-biotech and non-hybrid crops where IPRs are weaker, such as wheat, barley, oats, lentils, peas and flax.

Producer-funded research plays an important role for livestock and some crops. Levies are collected on farm product sales and then reinvested in research by producer-managed boards.

Unfortunately, most Canadian research checkoffs are set at levels far too low to provide adequate industry-driven research funding.

The social imperative to invest in improving the world’s food production capacity in a sustainable way is clear. We need greater long-term public funding commitments to plant, animal and food research, a modern investment climate for private firms to benefit from their own research, and enhancements to increase use of the producer-controlled check-off funding model.

Canada can “do well by doing good” through increased research investment: creating economic benefits at home while helping to address food security challenges.

John Kennelly is dean of the University of Alberta’s faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences. Alastair Cribb is dean of the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine. They are writing on behalf of Canada’s 13 deans of agriculture and veterinary medicine.

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