Keep agriculture on policy radar

When Agriculture Canada released its science and innovation strategy in 2006, it said: “The Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry is a cornerstone of our economic and social fabric. The sector is a key contributor to the high quality of life enjoyed by citizens across the country. It is vital to our nation’s economic success, currently producing some eight percent of our gross domestic product and accounting for one in eight jobs nationwide.”

Agriculture and agri-food are key components in the Canadian economy. No one can dispute that. Now is the time for continued investment in this sector, but agri-food is falling off the federal science and technology policy radar.

Industry Canada, which supports research and development through agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Genome Canada, announced a multi-year science and technology agenda in 2007 called Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage.

This document outlines strategic priorities “in areas that are in the national interest from a social and economic perspective.

“Basic and applied science across all disciplines, including natural sciences and engineering, social sciences and humanities, and health sciences, will be mobilized to support these priorities.”

More energy and resources would be focused on the following areas:

  • Natural resources and energy.
  • Environmental science and technologies.
  • Health and related life sciences and technologies.
  • Information and communications technologies.

Notice anything missing? Yep, agriculture and agri-food. Bits could be shoehorned into the four areas, such as asphytoremediation, biofuel, nutraceuticals and precision farming, but the core is explicitly excluded.

An industry that feeds you and feeds the world is worth investing in.

Agri-food research and development warrants public support. We need to communicate these key messages when speaking with politicians and policy makers.

There are economic reasons.

Experience tells us that the rates of return on agriculture and agri-food research and development investment are high, with benefit–cost ratios estimated in the range of 20:1 and higher. Historically, public research has played a vital role in the development of Canadian agriculture and agri-food.

The canola story is often held up as an example of an innovation funded with public research dollars. Canola gave western Canadian farmers an opportunity to diversify and made no-till agriculture feasible.

The impact of reduced-till and no-till farming cannot be ignored. Eighty percent of Saskatchewan farmland is now no-till.

This is largely because of the efforts of scientific pioneers such as Agriculture Canada researcher Guy Lafond, who had a passion for bringing science to the field and helping farmers conserve precious soil organic matter and ultimately the sustainability of the farm.

Where would agriculture be today if Canada had not made an investment in someone like Lafond?

There are also societal reasons.

Investment in agricultural research is not just about increased productivity but also sustainable productivity.

Technologies that reduce environmental impact and sustain farming operations will benefit all Canadians.

Multifaceted and multidisciplinary research and development strategies are required to meet global food security goals. Private investment cannot and will not do it alone. New and improved science and technology must be part of the global food security toolbox.

We must make several messages clear to policy makers:

  • Agriculture and agri-food industry is vital to our nation’s economic success.
  • Renewed science and technology research and development spending will lead to economic, social and political benefits.
  • Rates of return on agriculture research and development investment are high.
  • Sustainability is of common interest to agriculture and many Canadians.
  • New and improved science and technology must be part of the global food security toolbox.

Kari Doerksen is a senior project manager at Genome Prairie.

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