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Gov’t axes shelterbelt program

Ag research centres closing | Federal budget cuts will trim more than 1,000 positions from ag

More than 1,000 federal agriculture-related public servants will lose their jobs over the next several years because of budget cuts, say affected unions.

The positions include researchers, food inspectors and technical support staff.

Community pastures once operated by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration will be turned over to provinces or the private sector as well as the shelterbelt program at Indian Head, Sask.

Agriculture Canada’s agricultural environmental services branch, which swallowed the PFRA in 2010, is being gutted and moved into a new Science and Technology Centre.

Research centres, including the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg, will be closed within two years along with smaller research stations across the country, including in Delhi, Ont.

Researchers there have been trying to turn tobacco plants into genetically modified pharmaceutical carriers.

Co-operative support programs within Agriculture Canada are being slashed.

At press time April 16, Health Canada was unable to say how many Pest Management Regulatory Agency workers will lose jobs.

“These cuts are worse than I had anticipated,” said Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

He said 100 or more food inspector positions will be eliminated, including 40 that will be transferred to provincial governments in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, which until now have contracted the service from CFIA.

However, the job loss numbers could not be verified because the federal government was offering few if any numbers. Reports of job losses came from affected unions.

They are the result of the March 29 deficit-reducing federal budget that hit Agriculture Canada and its affiliated agencies with one of the hardest blows in government: 10 percent of the budget and $310 million in budget cuts over the next two years.

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said the cuts are ways to find “efficiencies” inside government or to get government out of areas where the private sector could and should be doing more.

Research is one of those areas.

“When it comes to research, Agriculture Canada has been spending about 75 cents on every dollar,” he said.

“We’d like to move to a 50-50 formula at best and maybe beyond that.”

He said the shelterbelt tree program and management of community pastures are century-old programs that need to be revamped.

“They have evolved to a certain extent, but that’s something the private sector could deliver in a much more effective way.”

The PFRA, which operated the shelterbelt program, was created 76 years ago to help fight soil erosion, which was devastating the Prairies during the 1930s drought. Ritz said it will be a three-year transition to decide how best to transfer those programs to provinces or the private sector.

Richard Phillips, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada, which was pressing for more research spending, said the group is unhappy about research cuts, but if the savings come from moving the last few years of varietal development and field tests to the private sector, “we can live with that because the base research on varieties is the priority for public research.”

Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said it is difficult to assess the impact of the cuts and determine how much will come from efficiencies and how much will hurt services to farmers.

“It is coming to us in bits and pieces and that is frustrating,” he said.

As an example, the CFIA was asked for specific job reduction numbers to compare to union claims.

It issued a statement April 16.

“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will not make any changes that would in any way place the health and safety of Canadians at risk,” it said, citing promised budget increases while not mentioning plans for CFIA budget reductions in government spending estimates.

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