Agriculture research poised to take big hit close to home

Recent rumblings from Ottawa sound ominous for agriculture-related research in Canada.

Recent rumblings from Ottawa sound ominous for agriculture-related research in Canada. It would seem that some big cuts will be made, and with the largest agricultural research centre in the country located in Lethbridge, that facility is sure to take a big hit.

Government austerity measures are the usual excuse with cutbacks and agriculture has to take their fair share, or so the spin doctored story goes. It’s a disingenuous excuse of course when one hears that the government plans to continue and even expand its self-promotion advertising campaign to the tune of $100 million over the next three years. The reality is ag research is just not very sexy and doesn’t directly impact all that many voters.

The federal Agriculture Minister tried to put on a brave face by lamely pronouncing that ag research was being refocused more towards a business outcome result. Besides he claimed, industry would pick up some of the research that was cutback if it was worthwhile. I would suggest that the government refocus of research would be more towards anything related to the oil business, as that is the current obsession.

No one disputes the critical contribution the energy industry makes to the economy, but agriculture and food should have the high moral ground being it’s hard to eat oil. You would think that would help our cause, but I guess as long as consumers believe food magically appears at their local grocery store, we face a losing case.

Public opinion does help change government perspectives, whenever there is a case of E.coli found in beef, the city media howls for more meat inspection.

Sure enough, the government seems to find money for more inspection, although that doesn’t seem to solve the problem. One can almost understand government bean counters shifting department budgets away from obscure long-term crop research to deal with such short-term calamities with their political consequences.

Having said that, the federal agriculture department could help themselves a bit by getting out of some silly programs that do absolutely nothing for agriculture in the big picture.

The prime example is their involvement with promoting and developing organic farming and marketing. I remain astonished about the growth of ag department fascination of that lifestyle food concept.

One can only assume that ag department planners have become captives of political correctness and trendiness as organic farming has no real redeeming values. Such production actually produce lower yields, and provides no better nutritional benefit.

On top of that it can only be afforded by the privileged in society. Yet Ag Canada deems that important enough to spend tax dollars on developing and promoting. It’s even more absurd in a starving world – when was the last time you heard of “organic” food aid being sent to the starving.

There’s some value in supporting ag research that has a more immediate commercial application, but it has to be made really open. For instance in crop production we need to introduce many more genetically modified plant varieties that will increase yields and reduce crop input costs.

But the feds are reluctant to get involved with GM research and then make it hard for GM varieties to come to market in a more timely manner by building walls of regulations.

The biggest travesty is in food safety where the feds continue to stall the use of irradiation. Food companies and meat processors would be more than happy to spend money on how that process can implemented in their production systems.

Why the feds have never advanced research into that food safety process is a complete mystery — it could have saved many lives and illnesses over the past decades.

Finally, agriculture research has shown time and again that it has made major contributions to economic advancement — canola being the most dramatic crop development that came out of past ag research.

The same could be achieved with more research into cereal production. We could even make bigger production strides with more forage related research. But alas, much of that will now be thwarted as cutbacks setback such research for many years to come.

It’s been said many times before that starvation and scarcity is the only way for agriculture to really get the government’s and public’s attention. Looks like ag research will have to face that reality again.

— Ahead of the Heard


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