Pandemic shouldn’t stop Ag Canada research

The biggest dividends in agricultural business are paid through research, but some of those dividends will be threatened or delayed if federal research is stalled in 2020.

Agriculture Canada senior staff are considering halting field, greenhouse and some lab research projects due to the risks from COVID-19. This includes co-operative trials for crops.

When it comes to plots and spring crops, little time remains available to prepare the ground or get the seeds in the soil, and lab work is integral to maintain research momentum.

While the government says long term rotational work will be managed, it also said April 24 that the bulk of field research might be curtailed to accommodate social distancing and other COVID-19 related complex working environments for its staff.

Despite the federal position on worker safety issues related to crop research, other partners and organizations involved in western Canadian field research said they have altered their processes and will conduct projects mostly as planned. They believe it can be done safely, albeit with increased costs for labour and transportation.

Returns on investment in agriculture are variable. Mostly they go from high to higher and often they are captured by farmers and by various agricultural enterprises. The rest of Canadian society benefits through increased employment and investment.

Research into the benefits of agricultural research indicates that farmers can expect to see up to 64 percent returns annually on average from their investments in science and technology. Agriculture extension programs that deliver the research to producers can yield 77 percent returns.

Over the long term, western Canadian benefit-to-cost ratios are estimated to be in the range of 12:1 to 34:1 for pulses, wheat, barley and canola. Beef research benefits top those at 37:1. Hog and dairy research also yield major benefits.

All of these returns are higher than other types of publicly supported or delivered research and development. It should make agriculture one of the most attractive uses for public dollars.

Western Canada’s co-op crop trials, requiring millions of dollars in investment by producers and run at Agriculture Canada research stations, provide significant information for breeders and growers.

Most farmer check-off investments are matched with federal, provincial and sometimes industry contributions. Farmer investments also underwrite many agricultural research projects initiated by governments or their agencies.

Beyond improved genetic, agronomic and husbandry techniques, often delivered through extension programs, one of the biggest benefits to producers and other Canadians has been in agricultural risk management.

Crop and livestock producers are more successful when they have improved tools and they require less support from government. Higher yields and greater potential returns from farmer investments in genetics and technology create a cycle of success and improve Canada’s international competitiveness. This only happens when research, development and delivery are sustained.

Producers are doing their part through check-off dollars and, despite significant budget reductions, provincial governments say they have found ways to safely run their field research programs.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba universities have also managed to plan for safe operations and the private sector says it has as well.

Only the federal government appears to be on the verge of letting the national agriculture team down in 2020.

Maybe Agriculture Canada needs some old-fashioned extension education from the provinces and schools on how to deliver research in the time of COVID-19.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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