Research, innovation key to future

One of the oldest clichés in agriculture might be that “research and innovation are the keys to our future.”

However, just because it is a cliché does not mean it is not true.

The federal election is over and Canada has a new government.

Agriculture lobby groups from every region will be asking them to support research.

However, what kind of research should we be asking them to support?  Should it be all public?  How do producers’ check-off investments build upon renewed private interest in variety development?

How we answer these questions will determine if Canada is going to be a leader in innovation or if it is going to be left behind.

Let’s deal with the first question.

Canada has a strong history of public investment in research and development. Marquis wheat and the first canola are just two examples of revolutionary innovations that came from public research.  The economic returns to the public and the country have been enormous.

However, so have the returns to farmers, grain handlers, processors and everyone else involved in the value chain, and we cannot expect the Canadian taxpayer to foot the whole bill for the next round of agriculture-specific innovation.

As well, trying to go down this path would mean private investment goes to our competitors, putting Canadian agriculture at a disadvantage. We need a combination of private, public and producer investment to remain competitive.

Continued public research is important, but this cannot be carried out in isolation. We need to do a better job to co-ordinate this work with private and producer investments to ensure funding from each source is complementary.

We will be worse off if tax dollars invested in research drives out private interest and investments are made in the United States or Australia instead of Canada.  Funding sources should not be competing with each other.

There are recent good examples of public–private–producer partnerships that can work together to bring new innovation to farmers, including the agreement between Canterra Seeds, the Alberta Wheat Commission and Agriculture Canada.

How can the country maximize the impact of public research dollars while encouraging private companies to invest in Canada?

A key step on the path to success must be clear strategic objectives for cereals research.  What is Canada’s competitive advantage in the increasingly global cereals market?  We need researchers and funders, both public and private, to come together to answer this question.

The strategic vision for cereals research must recognize that there are two customers for innovation.

Farmers must benefit from new varieties developed for Canadian growing conditions.  If farmers don’t benefit, innovation will never make it to the field, and investment will be lost.

However, research and variety development must also take into account the needs of end-use customers.  What do they want to buy from Canada? What are the unique quality characteristics from Canada that gain a premium from international millers?

These are critical questions that need to be answered by all parts of the value chain.

Canada will not become the world’s centre for cereals research if public research is isolated from private and producer investment.  Neither public nor private research will successfully increase the value of Canadian cereals production if the needs of both farmers and end-use customers are not considered.  Success will come when the public and private research fits seamlessly with Canada’s market development efforts.

It is not good enough to just tell elected officials, “you need to fund research.” Instead, we need to present a clear strategic research plan that demonstrates how public investment complements private and producer money, and how this will move Canada to the forefront of innovation and development.

Instead of just saying, “we need more money,” we need to say, “we have a plan, this is where governments fit and we need you to do your part.”

Cam Dahl is president of Cereals Canada.

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