Agricultural scientists may work on projects for short periods, but it’s unfair to conclude that Canada is neglecting visionary and revolutionary science, says an Agriculture Canada manager.
Critics of the nation’s agricultural research system say there’s too much applied research and not enough support for basic research, in which scientists seek answers to fundamental questions.
Gilles Saindon, the department’s associate assistant deputy minister for the science and technology branch, said short-range projects are part of larger objectives.
“It’s hard to recognize when you are doing the research that you are into an area that is likely to become transformative.”
For example, Saindon said Keith Downey and Baldur Stefansson were focused on daily tasks rather than developing a 20 million acre crop when they conducted their rapeseed research.
“(When they) worked on canola in the ’50s and ’60s, they didn’t wake in the morning and go, ‘OK, that is transformational (science),’ ” he said.
“They couldn’t really see the potential. It evolved into something very transformational.”
Saindon said zero tillage is another example. The scientists who led the initial studies didn’t know they were exploring blockbuster research that would drastically alter farming practices in Saskatchewan.
“In April 2014, it’s hard to know that you are part of that big game changer,” Saindon said, adding researchers working within a science cluster may be progressing toward something big.
Three-year projects allow scientists to review and reconfigure their research programs, Saindon said.
“Yes, it would be good to secure my funding for 10 years and I don’t have to ask again, but in this world, you need to review your progress, direction … more often than every 10 years,” he said.
“It gives them a chance to have a bunch of go or no go opportunities every three or four years…. It gives us that nimbleness, that flexibility to adjust our direction … periodically.”
Saindon said Canadian agriculture has evolved over the last 30 years. In the past, government and universities conducted most agricultural research.
“I would say the good ol’ days were appropriate for those days,” said Saindon, adding industry is now an active player in research.
“The good current days are good for our days, which is a multi-faceted, type of approach…. We have to worry about market demand, we have to work in terms of regulatory context.”
Genome Canada chair Lorne Hepworth said the organization has and does support groundbreaking science.
The organization backed the International Bovine Genome Sequencing Project, which Hepworth called a fundamental science that has benefited dairy farmers.
“The dairy industry called that … the biggest industry advancement since frozen semen,” he said.
“The return on that to the industry is something in the order of $180 million (annually).”
Genome Canada is also funding the Triticum Advancement Through Genomics project, Canada’s contribution to the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium.
“I think it’s to Canada’s credit that (we’re) involved in this project in a very significant way,” Hepworth said.
Stephen Morgan Jones, a former Agriculture Canada director general for science and technology on the Prairies, said the Canadian Wheat Alliance is an excellent example of a long-term and potentially groundbreaking project.
Agriculture Canada, the University of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan government and the National Research Council are investing nearly $100 million into the wheat alliance to advance the development of Canada’s wheat crops.
As for complaints that corporations have too much influence over research priorities, Saindon said Agriculture Canada collaborates and consults with industry, which includes producer groups.
“We do work a fair amount with industry. It is core and central to a lot of our activities,” said Saindon, who defined industry as corporations, producer organizations and commodity groups.
“Together they form the sector, so to speak, with which we interact…. So is industry the client? Yes, but it includes both sides. So producer organizations are (representing) individual farmers.”
Saindon said industry influence doesn’t dilute research goals. In January, the Canola Council of Canada set a target of 52 bushels per acre for yields in Western Canada by 2025.
He said that sort of industry direction is healthy for agriculture because it will ultimately improve the resilience and sustainability of the sector.