Agricultural research in this country has irrevocably changed. For decades now, government has been pulling funding out of production research and sinking it into environmental issues. The argument is, a stronger agriculture can pay for its own science.
Jim Brandle, research administrator
Jim Brandle isn’t just talking about doing research differently. He’s forging change by example. For the last five years as CEO of Vineland Research Station and Innovation Centre (VRS) in Niagara, Brandle has employed a unique new business model to make major decisions.
This model makes research a link between farmers and retailers, basing project selection on consumer research, and establishing pay-for-use fees for research.
That’s quite a departure from the 1886 Experimental Farm Station Act which launched Canada’s research programs. The idea then was to create varieties that would thrive in the North and thereby encourage farmers to immigrate to Canada.
The old model worked well. Marquis wheat, released from the Indian Head Experimental Farm in 1907, was a key driver of economic development across the northern Prairies.
Now, things have changed. “The old system doesn’t work in the context of what society is today,” says Brandle. “Horticulture is globalized. Buyers and sometimes even growers operate globally. We need a new policy that leads.”
The old system was too paternalistic, based on a group of men in white lab coats knowing better than farmers what research was needed, says Brandle. “Farmers today don’t need me to tell them how to produce, or how to run their businesses.”
However, farmers do need a way to test and innovate, especially in fast-moving, quality-obsessed, markets where having an edge in innovation can make the difference between profit and loss.
Perhaps nowhere is the pressure more intense than in horticulture. Encumbered with our short growing season and high labour costs, local farmers compete directly against a growing flood of imported fruits and vegetables.
Horticultural farmers and the sector’s private companies need research, but aren’t big enough to have their own research departments. So Brandle’s goal is to rent Vineland’s research expertise out to them. The team of 70 full-time people plus partners working at the station can then provide professional scientific expertise. “We aspire to be your R&D department,” Brandle says.
Vineland’s operating income includes provincial and federal grants, revenues from earlier innovations and payment for services from companies using their research services. It acts as an independent, not-for profit organization, which makes it different from a university or a typical government research office.
“We’re not here to train people and we are not a policy organization,” says Brandle. “We deliver results in the field.”
Reflecting this, Brandle’s board contains both top retailers and farmers, and he has found that creating mechanisms to bring growers, retailers and scientists together naturally leads to innovation. Having this constant conversation is the first step of the process and one that is often missing or difficult in agriculture.
“We want to promote business-to-business relationships,” says Brandle.
Vineland even has its own consumer science and product innovation department whose job is to find out what consumers really want.
“Agriculture often forgets consumers,” says Brandle. At some point, he says, success has to be measured by feet of grocery store shelf space.
Vineland also analyses the potential product’s fit for farmers, and whether the results in the test plots can actually be captured in real on-farm conditions.
Brandle’s vision is for all public research to be more results based. “Our systems are disintegrating.” Yet that still leaves a troubling question. Should taxpayer money be used to create more profit for private companies? “Overall, society benefits,” says Brandle. “If they (farmers and companies) are smart enough to take advantage, why shouldn’t they?”
Pat Lynch, agronomist
Pat Lynch has witnessed agricultural research from both the private and public sides, and today he says the chasm between them is too big to breach. Agricultural research should be left to private companies, Lynch now says. Let the marketplace work out priorities and regulate the processes.
On-farm and private-company research have more than filled the gap left by universities and AAFC, says Lynch. “If a company listens to the consumers, it will develop a product the consumers and farmers want. If it does not listen, it will go out of business.”
Now, Lynch thinks, Canada should accept the limitations of public research. In future, he says, its primary goal should be to develop scientists who will make the transition to private industry, like he did. “That should be the main focus — develop researchers,” says Lynch.
That’s different from the ’60s and ’70s when universities would breed new crop varieties and release them to whatever company wanted them. But it isn’t a night-and-day difference. In corn, for instance, companies would put public inbreds together to come up with new hybrids. Soon companies like Pioneer started hiring their own breeders and got serious about hybrids and exclusive research.
At the same time, pesticide companies began developing their own chemistry. Companies started to have research teams much bigger than anything public institutions could afford. Researchers were drawn to private companies by better salaries and better funding. “Public researchers are always trying to raise more money,” Lynch says. “Private researchers are given a budget to produce something.”
Lynch says the gap between public and private is growing. “There used to be more public researchers than private. Now it is the other way.”
Besides, Lynch says, government and university research is getting shaped more and more by non-farm considerations. The people who control the money want to say they’re “green” so they push for more organic and local-food research.
Lynch agrees there’s a trend toward private companies sponsoring research projects at universities in Canada. “Cargill has spent a lot of money at the various universities,” says Lynch. However, much that goes on is very confidential.
The rules to ensure objectivity are as tight as you can make them, says Lynch. It doesn’t matter how many rules are written, it still comes down to producers and competition overseeing the products.
“The government should get out of it and do less overseeing,” says Lynch. “Producers are not stupid, defenceless children.”
Richard Gray, economist
Canadian farmers today pay about 10 per cent of their expected gross income for the latest seed varieties. In turn, companies reinvest about 10 per cent of their seed sale revenue into research.
The result has been a rapid improvement in crop performance and widespread adoption of enhanced crops.
But that’s an exception. Not all research is so obviously for the better.
The upshot is slower growth in farm productivity, says University of Saskatchewan economist Richard Gray, and it’s hard to see how to turn it around.
“Achieving the appropriate mix of public, private and industry institutions will play an increasingly important role in international competitiveness,” says Gray, who has been sounding the alarm since publishing his 2007 paper “Ag Research at a Crossroads.”
Gray’s perch at Saskatoon during the canola revolution gave him a close up view of the impact of biotechnology on crop breeding and research. “Ownership of crop traits has been a game changer,” he says.
Today, Gray points out, more resources are focussed only on IP traits in annual crops, such as canola in western Canada and corn and soybeans in the east. There’s also greater secrecy among public researchers, and more selective use of processes and germ plasm in some sectors.
The most desirable genetic traits and biotechnological processes — which in the old days came to market through SeCan — often are subject to exclusive ownership and control today, and may be distributed among the major seed biotech companies via huge contracts.
Monsanto on its own is spending close to $1 billion a year on research.
Smaller private and public institutions are no longer able to assemble plant varieties to compete with larger private companies. More importantly, the synergies between institutions are breaking down, reducing the overall effectiveness of our research effort, says Gray.
“Private research tends to fragment work,” says Gray. “Communication between researchers become proprietary.”
Not surprisingly, there’s also more pressure on research to produce quicker payoffs, which leaves much of agriculture in the cold.
In spite of its large acres, for instance, forage seed breeding research has been pushed to the fringe. There just aren’t enough dollars at the end of the rainbow. It’s the same for smaller acreage crops such as mustard, flax or lentils too, so they now rely primarily on provincial and levy-funded research.
As well, companies have to worry whether they’ll be able to capitalize on their innovations. If they can’t see a clear path to control over their genetics (i.e., if farmers can grow the seed themselves) then the risk can seem too great. “This leaves the role of agronomic research to the industry organizations, the government sector, or some combination of the two,” says Gray.
Bigger picture items often take longer to research but may have bigger pay backs for society, such as the no-till seeding tested at the Indian Head Research Farm in the 1980s. “Those really big breakthroughs only happens every couple of decades and there are high, high returns for these developments,” says Gray.
A 2007 study found productivity in the crop sector in Western Canada grew by only 0.51 per cent per year from 1990 to 2004. That’s a huge, annually compounding drop from the productivity growth of the previous 50 years, which averaged nearly 1.8 per cent per year.
Now, Gray is concerned that Canada will lose competitiveness as other countries, such as China and Brazil, ramp up their investment in their ag research.
Gray is also concerned about the long-term vulnerability of government-funded research. “Politicians have short-term electoral cycles,” he says. “They tend to migrate toward income support for this year’s budget instead of investing in research.”
“In some ways we’re following the U.S. system, not a shining star of an example,” says Gray. “Australians are doing it (government-funded ag research) quite differently.”
In Australia, the farmer-controlled Grains Research and Development Corporation spends over $100 million per year on productivity related research. It also initiated the creation and is a major shareholder in three of the country’s four twheat breeding firms.
For comparison, from 2000 to 2004 Canada spent $31 million ($0.70 per tonne) and the U.S. invested $25 million ($0.57 per tonne) on wheat, oat, barley and rye breeding.
Gray is a fan of producer check-off funding research such as programs run by the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers and the new Alberta Barley Commission checkoff, and he suggests government funding be directed to collaborative and joint agricultural research, creating a national consolidated research program similar to the Australian example. Says Gray: “AAFC is in a natural leadership position.” CG