Pandemic fears throw wrench into ag research

COVID-19 is delaying much of society’s normal activities, but for agriculture research, “delay” might actually mean “not going to happen” this year.

That’s worrying researchers, farmers and those in agriculture who rely upon their work. Delays might mean permanent damage to multi-year research.

Some crop research can’t be done at all if researchers can’t get their hands on seeds that should be distributed now.

“Somebody has to be sitting in a lab measuring those out right now in order for us to be able to put it in the ground,” said Lana Shaw, who oversees the South East Research Farm in Redvers, Sask.

“What’s up in the air is whether the seed will be sent, or whether they’ll delay the project for a year. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty for us.

“I’m sure that’s true for… most people in research now.”

For people like Shaw and the network of non-profit research centres she works with, their research relies in part on material that comes out of institutions like Agriculture Canada and university crop research and development programs. Most of those are affected by the COVID-19 restrictions.

Season-dependent researchers across Canada are grappling with the COVID-19 disruption, which is coming just as the country is thawing from winter and when growing season research must start.

“I don’t expect to do field work of any kind this summer,” said Ryan Brook, a University of Saskatchewan Agriculture and Bioresource professor and researcher.

“Perhaps we’ll salvage something in August.”

He was speaking from his home office. His university, like most, has locked down its campus and is only allowing essential services to occur on its grounds. Inside that locked-down campus is something that Brook would need for one of his planned projects this spring and summer.

“I’ve got a pallet-load of trail cameras sitting in my office that won’t go anywhere any time soon,” said Brook.

Those cameras were to be part of a growing network Brook is trying to build across Canada, designed to capture information about the wild pigs that are spreading in many agricultural areas and forests. Those pigs not only damage crops and threaten livestock in the field, but could act as a permanent reservoir for African Swine Fever if it reaches North America.

The cameras are stuck on campus. But even if he could get them, social distancing means he can’t work with a team to get them installed far and wide. Other research projects with undergraduate and graduate students are also up in the air, presumably scrubbed for this summer.

This is true across Canada.

“Only limited research is continuing in university research facilities, including off-campus research sites,” said Martin Scanlon, the dean of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

The U of M is attempting to merely delay planned research and to preserve and protect ongoing projects.

“Where there has been significant up-front research investment conducted to get to this point, the University of Manitoba… is permitting this to be finished off, or for ‘maintenance activities’ to continue,” said Scanlon.

Those kinds of activities include marker-assisted plant selection for breeding programs and prep work for field tests, but new research projects are being shelved.

Instead, students and researchers are being guided towards data analysis rather than in-lab or in-field raw data collection, because that can be done remotely and without bringing people physically together.

That’s the approach Brook is taking. He can’t send students out in the field right now, but he can send them data.

“Trying to find ways that you can reshift your focus away from collecting new data to finding opportunities with existing data,” said Brook.

For instance, he has “probably hundreds of thousands” of trail cam picture of wild pigs, moose, deer and other wildlife that could be further analyzed this summer.

“I have a lot of information and we’re happy to work with people and trying to come up with solutions for any and all students out there around the world that are stuck.”

Thousands of students who were expecting to be employed as research and field staff this summer are suddenly discovering their projects and perhaps even jobs are not going forward. Some need that expected income, while others cannot meet the requirements for graduate degrees without the research they planned this summer. It’s a further challenge to address.

For Shaw, with needed research seed stocks possibly caught in locked-down facilities, anxiety grows as the growing season approaches and she doesn’t know what she’ll be able to seed.

“It’s like putting together a quilt of where all of our trials are,” said Shaw.

Her greatest worry is for rotational trials, which are by nature multi-year and cannot allow a gap. She is prioritizing those.

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