Get public research right and the results can be impressive, whether the benefit is incremental, like the new crop varieties that, year after year, edge farm productivity up, or if it’s transformative like the invention of canola or the equally ground-shifting release of early genetics that saw corn and soybeans to sweep the East and then head west.
Research can even be a systemic thing, perfecting new ways to grow crops with reduced tillage, for instance, thus conserving soil while also saving growers untold hours and dollars.
All are built on sound public research, and all are undeniably good news for Canada as well as for Canadian farmers.
But with all the cuts, is there any way public ag research will be able to keep delivering, at least on the kind of pace or at the kind of scale that the Canadian industry will need in the years ahead?
It’s impossible to hide the head count, says recently retired AAFC wheat breeder Ron DePauw. He joined AAFC’s research branch in the fall of 1973, when there were nearly 900 scientists on staff. When he retired in late winter of 2015, there were fewer than 400.
But there were other kinds of losses too. Increasingly, scientists and the managers that were overseeing them were being asked to do more with less.
“It’s been a long-term erosion,” DePauw says. “It hasn’t been just one government, or anything like that.”
Over decades, funding trended downward, punctuated by two periods of deep cuts, one under each party. In the mid-1990s the Chretien government slashed funding in an effort to balance the budget, and in 2012 the federal Conservatives under Stephen Harper did much the same, for many of the same reasons.
On one hand, Canada was hardly unique, but the questions are getting louder. What will happen when the research doesn’t get done?
“There are some kinds of research that only the public sector will do,” DePauw says. “Not everything has a clearcut motive for the private sector.”
DePauw’s area of expertise is a good example of this. There are only a handful of privately employed cereal breeders, because they’re not crops with a big economic incentive attached to them. Cereals self-pollinate, so farmers can save their own seed instead of going back to the seed company.
As a result almost all current cereal breeders work for AAFC, the universities, or other public institutions.
Public researchers are also the only ones who will do certain kinds of work, DePauw says. For example, soil and agronomic practices are vital but don’t have a clearcut path to reward the organization doing that research, since knowledge spreads freely and information that makes farms more efficient can’t be unlearned.
DePauw believes there’s a clear economic case for investing in public research, perhaps through a new, independent funding agency that operates at arm’s length from government, freeing the process up from politics.
“They’ve done that in other places recently,” DePauw says. “New Zealand did it in the 1980s when it had that big budget crisis, and the United Kingdom did something similar very recently.”
Retired AAFC cereals breeder Julian Thomas confirms much of Ron DePauw’s view on the state of public agriculture research in Canada. He joined the AAFC research branch in 1978 and worked successively at Beaverlodge, Lethbridge and finally at the recently demolished Cereals Research Centre in Winnipeg, a fact he feels serves as a nice metaphor for the public commitment to agriculture research.
“When I joined, it was the beginning of soft money coming into research — money from outside agencies,” Thomas says. “One of the first was a program by the Alberta government called ‘Farming for the Future’ which was investing some of its oil money into agriculture research.”
While the money was welcome, because good agricultural research and breeding programs always in the end boil down to money and resources, it was the “soft” part of the equation that has proven to be difficult over the years. “Plant breeding requires a constant flow of investment so that it’s not interrupted,” Thomas explains.
Thomas says the key to success in the future is going to be adequate, predictable funding, and just as importantly, clearly focused breeding objectives that limit major funding to a handful of classes to get the best bang for the buck. For example, there would be less chasing of specialty wheat classes.
If Thomas had his druthers, he’d like to see public research focus on three main classes. “I’d focus on durum, red spring and red winter wheat, and let the rest go to hell,” he says.
It sounds brutal, but similar decisions would await all sectors. How else would the individual programs be assured of sufficient resources to achieve their objectives?
Thomas says farmers should be willing to fund this research, at least in part, because other crops with far higher seed costs show what might happen if they don’t. “I think if they fund it themselves, in the long run it will cost them a lot less,” he says.
It wouldn’t be cheap. The wheat program in Western Canada alone would cost $6 million to $10 million a year, but the alternatives aren’t great.
“I don’t think the provinces, either through their governments or the provincial wheat organizations, should be working separately, they should be working together.” Thomas adds, “We also have common research interests with the northern tier of U.S. states.”
But, Thomas says, “Unfortunately, collaboration is not as strong as it might be across the political boundary.”
Steve Morgan Jones confirms there’s been a long-term trend towards less research capacity at AAFC.
He should know. A research scientist by training, he also spent a significant portion of his career as a senior administrator for AAFC before retiring and becoming an agricultural consultant in recent years.
Morgan Jones says the trend began sometime in the early ’80s and continues today. At times it’s been slow and steady, and at other times the cuts have slashed at budgets, such as under 1995 Chretien and the 2012 Harper governments.
“The result was a considerable reduction in people and less capacity to do research,” Morgan Jones says.
The vacuum this has created has only been partially filled. Significant amounts of research have been picked up by the private sector, especially by producer groups funding varietal development and agronomy through checkoffs. While Morgan Jones concedes those groups aren’t strictly private business, he says they do share some of the same priorities when it comes to research.
“I view producer organizations as private research, because they have many of the same goals and expectations when it comes to research for relatively quick returns on their investment,” Morgan Jones says. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing or an unreasonable approach either — it’s just the reality of the situation.”
That does however, leave a gap, for discovery research that may or may not pay dividends in the future. For example, much of the early work that transformed rapeseed into canola was done at public institutions, and was even occasionally held up to ridicule as non-agriculture pundits wondered why the government was investing in the crop with the strange and off-putting name.
“It’s this type of research that doesn’t get done by private industry until it is closer to becoming a commercial reality,” Morgan Jones says. “I think you need to fund public research to ensure there is a pipeline of discoveries.”
There’s another problem too. Since the federal government has scaled back, nobody is entirely sure exactly who’s doing what across the country, leading to the risk of either duplicating efforts or having no one take on a problem.
It’s this type of research that doesn’t get done by private industry until it is closer to becoming a commercial reality.”
Can we make the big discoveries?
At University of Guelph, agriculture economist John Cranfield confirms the reduction in public research affects the industry Canada-wide and from sector to sector.
“It’s absolutely an issue that affects farmers across the country,” Cranfield says, adding that the issue isn’t so much that no research is being done, but that the demand for ‘practical’ research is dictating where that money gets spent, often thanks to matching investments from either private firms or non-government organizations such as grower groups.
“Governments see that and they see industry support, and that the research is serving a need,” Cranfield says.
Then there’s the harsh political reality — governments want to fund projects that show results quickly, because they want to be able to demonstrate to voters in four years’ time that they’ve accomplished something. That can be a problem for agriculture research, where results can be tangible, but slow to come.
“We know the return to agriculture research is often seen over the long term — 10, 20, even 30 years,” Cranfield says.
That’s especially true of what’s known as lab-bench research — the theoretical work that can lay the foundation for breakthroughs in the future. They typically aren’t seen as commercially viable, and in other industries might even be something a group of competitors form a consortium to perform, with the understanding that the work is what’s known as “pre-competitive” but would benefit all the players.
“This is where we’re falling behind — and it’s not even the red queen effect where we have to run to stay in place — we are falling behind,” Cranfield says.
That’s troubling because this is the very foundation upon which later practical research is based, Cranfield explains.
“People get nervous when they hear a university professor talk like this, but sometimes you do need to do that sort of navel gazing.”
One of the strongest proponents for public research in Canada has been University of Saskatchewan agriculture economist Richard Gray.
The numbers, he says, are too impressive to ignore.
For instance, in a presentation this winter to the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association, Gray analyzed numbers for zero-till research. Between 1960 and 2009, a total of just over $144 million was invested in the sector. Public institutions invested 70.6 million, while private machinery firms invested $74.1 million.
That initial investment generated more than $24 billion in measurable benefits, almost all of that going directly to the farmers who adopted the system. Those producers enjoyed higher productivity due to the elimination of fallow, higher production, more efficient water use, less soil erosion, higher organic matter and less salinity. Put another way, every dollar spent on developing this innovative system has returned $60 to growers already, and the benefits continue to accumulate year after year.
Nor does he think those days should be done. Canadian research could be just as vigorously helping our farmers become the best in the world at precision agriculture.
“Technology from the equipment manufacturers, has been around for a decade or more,” Gray says. “However, the management and agronomy to optimally exploit the technology has been slow to develop.”
Gray says what’s needed is a model where public and private organizations can take different tasks on. Basic science should be publicly funded because there’s frequently little economic incentive for any private organization to do it. Plant breeding can be divided between public and private sectors, depending on property rights.
“I think a strong case can be made for producer involvement in funding research and breeding of open-pollinated crops,” he says.
What sort of funding model is used for the public side of the equation is an interesting question. While some call for separating it from government by creating an arm’s-length agency, Gray notes that even so, the federal government can only commit to funding something for five years, which means political pressure and budgetary realities would, eventually, likely come home to roost. An endowment system would work, but to be meaningful the endowment would have to be quite large.
“The Australian Grain Research Development Corporation model is interesting, because the government has made a long-term commitment to match industry checkoffs, up to the first half a per cent of total sales,” Gray says. “This matching agreement has kept both the public and producers at the table.”
Agriculture consultant John Groenewegen is a widely acknowledged expert in agri-food strategy, first with Deloitte & Touche, where he was a partner and led Canada-wide agri-food strategy projects out of Guelph. Later he founded JRG Consulting Group, where he’s become a go-to consultant for complex topics in the Canadian agriculture sector.
“Certainly we’ve seen a reduction in agricultural research by the public sector, in part because of budgetary constraints,” Groenewegen says. “There’s also the question about whether more of this research should be funded by industry, since they’re the ones that will benefit first and most from it, though the country as a whole can certainly benefit from things like greater productivity and more trade.”
Groenewegen agrees there are areas where private industry is doing a very good job — for example, there’s little need for public money to ensure a continuous flow of new canola or corn hybrids, for example.
In other areas, the need for public research is compelling, like basic discovery research, which frequently lacks any near- or medium-term economic rationale, as well as basic questions of agronomy which aren’t attractive to private funding.
“In economists’ jargon, these are ‘public goods’ and are areas where we could see taxpayer research funding continue to dwindle,” he says.
Groenewegen says in some cases this research is vital, because it helps us stay ahead of our competition in other jurisdictions, and in its absence Canada could become less competitive. It’s also the type of research that has, over the years, led to game-changing breakthroughs.
But public research should have a broader role too. “If we’re talking about varietal development, there’s a whole host of research topics that are ‘pre-breeding,’” he says. “The public sector should be involved in this space.”
Producers are the major beneficiaries, and at the end of the day, he says, if the public sector is not devoting sufficient resources, next in line is the producer community.”
Yet Groenewegen also says research is always going to be a balancing act between public and private research, and the best results will come in finding the sweet spot.
But, he warns, “I don’t know that anyone really knows where that sweet spot is.”