Agricultural innovationrequires public investment

Canadian agriculture’s bright future has suddenly become murky with the announcement that the federal government will eliminate a minimum 350 jobs within the agriculture department, including a large number of researchers.

The closure of research stations, job cuts and centralization caught many producer groups by surprise, even though agriculture minister Gerry Ritz has been telegraphing the government’s direction for years. The cuts just seemed too draconian to be true.

That direction, in case it has missed anyone’s notice, is a far greater reliance on the private sector, including farmers themselves. With the claw back of business risk management programs in Growing Forward 2, at least producers had the promise of more “innovation” to bank on. But now, that too has been compromised.

Lynn Jacobson, president of Wild Rose Agricultural Producers in Alberta, perhaps said it best when asked for his reaction after the announcements.

“We thought, with the way … the government had set things up in Growing Forward 2 and the references that were made to innovation and investments in research, that we weren’t going to be touched on that end of things, but what Ottawa is saying and what they are practicing are two different things.”

Unsurprisingly, just as with Growing Forward 2, the government again did not consult with farm groups. Grain Growers of Canada and others have long argued that research needed more funding, and they had no opportunity to present their cases before the job cuts and the list of station closures were announced.

It’s a long list, including nine former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration offices and two Agriculture Canada research stations. The PFRA offices are in Dauphin and Beausejour, Man.; Melville, Watrous, North Battleford and Weyburn, Sask; and Westlock, Peace River and Red Deer, Alta. The research stations are in Onefour and Stavely, Alta., which have apparently been underused, although largely due to past funding cuts. The Grassland Applied Technology Centre in Kamloops, B.C., will also close, along with a dairy program at Agassiz. Other programs are being centralized, such as the grasslands program moving to Swift Current, Sask.

However, having agricultural research stations in many locations across the Prairies is important economically, as well as in terms of research.

Meanwhile, many well-educated, well-trained people will leave the agriculture department. For now, they include 144 commerce officers, 79 scientists, 76 information technology specialists, 29 engineers, 14 biologists, five research managers and three procurement officers.

In several ways, these cuts add insult to injury, coming on top of the job cuts that have already occurred at Environment Canada, another government department where research is a crucial part of assisting agriculture.

Clearly, the focus is on switching responsibilities to the private sector, but private research is not always aligned with the needs of an economy. While private firms do their best to innovate — better seeds, better crop management products — they are not necessarily engaged in the pure, primary research needed to keep up with issues such as climate change. The country needs its own research that is not proprietary and leads to true innovation.

The federal government must realize that innovation comes with investment, which largely means highly trained people. It must also keep its promises, such as those in Growing Forward 2. The agriculture industry is not only too large but too important to Canada’s economy to continue down this path of cutting services, jobs and research. What will agriculture in 2050 look like, if no pure research is being done now?

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