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Crop research agency under the gun

Rumours are swirling that another government research agency may be terminated by the NDP government.

AHEAD OF THE HEARD -- Rumours are swirling that another government research agency may be terminated by the NDP government. This time it’s the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF). It’s a quasi-government agency that is funded by grants from the government and the provincial crop commissions including wheat, oilseed, pulse, oat, forages and other speciality crop producers. The ACIDF receives most of its funding from the government usually as part of a five-year research investment plan. Present funding is going to run out next March 31, 2018. The crop commissions have met with the Minister to ascertain if there is a plan to extend the ACIDF for another five years. To date they do not feel confident about its future. One suspects there are a couple of other issues at play here, perhaps even some political mischief.

The ACIDF has the whole-hearted support of the crop industry that provides a considerable amount of money for research projects, but the biggest plus is that the crop commissions make up the board of directors of the agency. That’s important because it gives producers control over the direction and priorities of crop research. In the past one of the biggest criticisms of crop research money controlled by government and universities was that it was at times directed at projects that did not have a lot of practical benefit to the primary grower. There is nothing new in that perspective; if producers aren’t part of the research process, researchers start talking to only each other and start to pursue their own agendas and interests.

Interestingly, the University of Alberta was a significant recipient of research money from ACIDF, so it would seem that producers and academia can work together. So what gives, one might ponder stakeholders and producers all seem to be happy with the agency and it is producing good results to the benefit of the industry. So why might the government want to eliminate this productive agency? One only needs to look back on the fate of another agency that a year and a half ago was terminated by the NDP government that being the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA).

ALMA was another research agency that had universal support from the livestock industry and carried out valuable and successful research to the benefit of meat producers. Your humble writer has written copiously about the nefarious demise of ALMA orchestrated by the NDP government and it looks like history will be repeating itself with the fate of ACIDF. One suspects senior bureaucrats at the agriculture department are behind the threatened future of ACIDF, that’s because like with the termination, ALMA government research money will just be re-absorbed into the department and controlled by those same bureaucrats. They may have savoured their victory in taking over ALMA and are now emboldened to take over similar agencies. There was a time when virtually all government funding for research was controlled by bureaucrats who had advisory committees from the ag industry; it was a power structure they probably liked it’s only human nature. But that process evolved into a more practical approach with producers in charge and the sharing of funding.

There is probably more to the story; I suspect the future of ACIDF can also be used as a stick by the NDP government to keep the crop commissions in line on other issues like farmworker OHS rights and labour relations. The crop commissions were vociferous opponents of Bill 6, so a little bit of political mischief by the Minister could be assumed by his reluctance to assure the future of ACIDF. But he just might be in a lose-lose situation about the future of ACIDF and it has to do with the precedence of terminating ALMA.

The excuse the government used with ALMA was that it was discontinued to save money they claimed they would save $3 million but in the end saved only $500,000. ACIDF has a much smaller bureaucratic and operational footprint so absorbing it into the department wouldn’t save much at all. But does the government have a choice how can you eliminate ALMA and not ACIDF being there is a remarkable similarity between the purpose of both agencies. A classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But then the government created this conundrum themselves. Pity though, this type of political intrigue only creates animosity, suspicion and instability. That in turn affects research that is both needed and relevant to the agriculture sector in general.