Crop research lacks vision, patience, say scientists

It’s a story that’s been told hundreds if not thousands of times at farm meetings in Western Canada.

Two determined and creative plant breeders, Baldur Stefansson and Keith Downey, transformed an insignificant oilseed crop into a juggernaut that now contributes $20 billion annually to the nation’s economy and employs 250,000 Canadians.

The canola story is a fantastic tale and certainly worth retelling. However, the basic research behind canola is now four decades old.

At some point, farmers, industry employees and agricultural scientists may tire of the tale and ask the obvious question: what’s next?

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Will Canada ever develop another canola or deliver a discovery that revolutionizes global agriculture?

Wilf Keller, president and chief executive officer of Ag-West Bio, which helps move agricultural research to market, is doubtful. Considering the current state of Canadian agricultural science, he thinks the canola story will not be duplicated.

“It’s unlikely,” said Keller, who was an Agriculture Canada research scientist for 17 years and president of Genome Prairie from 2008-12.

He said Canada could deliver another transformative discovery, but the existing system doesn’t support revolutionary science.

“The canola story was a 20 to 25 year work plan. There was a vision to achieve that and the patience to achieve that,” he said.

“We are much more project oriented now. There’s shorter-term funding available for projects, as opposed to longer-term funding for what I would call programs or strategies.”

Agriculture Canada scientists who spoke off the record said Keller’s assessment is correct. Most research is funded for three years with no guarantee of renewal when the project ends.

As well, almost all research requires an industry partner, and scientific goals sink to the lowest priority when too many players are at the table.

It’s nearly impossible under those conditions to deliver groundbreaking science.

Allen Good, a University of Alberta plant scientist, agreed that funding bodies, government and companies are fixated on “incremental” re-search.

“If you want to ask, ‘can we create another canola,’ the answer is if we keep funding things the way we do, clearly not,” said Good, who studies nitrogen use efficiency in plants and biological nitrogen fixation.

Funders who are obsessed with the now have no sense of visionary, groundbreaking science, Good added. “(If) you talk to some senior guy in Genome Canada … he says, ‘I read about that (research) in the Globe and Mail, it’s got to be a good idea to fund,’ ” he said.

“Well, if you read about it in the Globe and Mail, it’s probably only 15 to 20 years old.”

Good said nitrogen fixing cereal crops are a good example of risk-taking agricultural research.

Plant scientists at the John Innes Centre in England, along with researchers in Spain, the Netherlands and a few other countries, are attempting to understand the nitrogen fixing properties of legumes and transfer the characteristic into cereal crops.

In other words, these scientists are trying to reduce the $100 billion that farmers spend annually on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

Transforming corn into a legume is exceptionally complex and challenging, but it represents the type of science that Canadian institutions could fund but don’t, Good said.

“I was just asked this, this morning, by one of the senior people in our research office, ‘why isn’t this (nitrogen fixing cereals) being funded by the province and within Canada?’ ” he said in mid-March.

“I said it’s too visionary and it’s too long term…. We fund short-term, pedestrian science. That’s the way we work.”

Keller said cutting funding to fundamental science may not have immediate consequences, but it will eventually bite.

“This is about discovery … that will have impact on the productivity and quality of agricultural products in 2040 or 2050,” he said.

“These things take time and I am increasingly concerned that the cupboard is going to be fairly bare by then because we haven’t invested in those long-term discoveries.”

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