Report identifies concerns in agricultural research

Study says agronomic research could suffer due to reduced funding and staffing at public institutions

The Western Grains Research Foundation is developing a plan aimed at improving agronomic research in Western Canada.

The foundation recently commissioned a study that assesses agronomic research capacity in the West.

The study, completed by the consulting firm Toma and Bouma of Edmonton, suggested that universities, colleges, applied research associations, provincial agriculture departments and Agriculture Canada research facilities are facing imminent challenges that could affect their ability to conduct relevant agronomic research.

Key areas of concern identified in the study include funding stability, staffing levels, the availability of qualified scientists to replace retiring experts and the need to upgrade infrastructure and replace aging research equipment.

The research foundation will use the information to formulate a plan aimed at identifying gaps in Western Canada’s agronomic research community.

“This report is the first step in developing a plan to optimize agronomic research capacity in Western Canada, taking into account future needs of farmers,” said Garth Patterson, executive director of the foundation.

“We … will be discussing the development of an action plan in the coming months.”

The foundation has identified agronomic research as critically important to the productivity of Western Canadian farmers.

Beneficial agronomic practices that are identified by researchers and adopted at the farm level can boost productivity significantly, adding hundreds of million of dollars to farmgate earnings.

However, potential gaps in agronomic research capacity are emerging.

For example, the Toma and Bouma report suggested that approximately 20 core PhD positions will be vacated at public institutions over the next three years.

“Specific gaps will emerge … in agronomy, weed science, entomology and crops,” it said.

“These real bottlenecks will appear soon in several organizations.”

The report also identified a need to renew equipment and invest in research infrastructure.

“Equipment is a capacity issue for many organizations,” said the report’s executive summary.

“Equipment is of various ages, conditions and values, with some having newer equipment and others having older equipment which cannot really be useful on a similar data collection basis.”

Dave Sefton, chair of the foundation’s board of directors, said the report was not intended to criticize institutions that conduct agronomic research.

Instead, it was intended to assess capacity, identify needs and ensure that publicly funded institutions continue to meet the needs of prairie farmers.

“The consultant found that of the 83 (full time equivalent) scientists currently involved in agronomic research at western Canadian universities, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the provincial agriculture departments, up to 25 percent could retire in the near future,” Sefton said.

“In order to plan for increased funding of agronomic research, we first need to understand the capacity of the public system to carry out increased agronomic research.”

Potential solutions identified in the report include improved co-ordination of research resources, enhanced partnerships between research institutions and improved collaboration between producer groups that fund agronomic research.

The study also highlighted the need for a gap analysis within Agriculture Canada and the creation of a fund that could be used to finance equipment and infrastructure needs at research agencies.

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