Agricultural scientists and farm groups are expressing dismay at a decision by a federal research agency to stop funding food research.
The decision by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council sends a negative message, both at home and abroad, that Canada is not interested in research which a hungry world urgently needs, say researchers at the University of Manitoba.
“It certainly sends a signal to say that this is not as important to us as it might be to the rest of the world,” said Karin Wittenberg, associate dean of research for the faculty of agricultural and food sciences.
NSERC recently indicated it would remove food-related research from its strategic target funding areas for the coming year. Instead the agency will concentrate on funding projects in four other areas: environmental science and technology, natural resources and energy, information and communication technology, and manufacturing.
A statement released by NSERC acknowledges novel food and bioproducts have been discontinued as target areas for funding. But it says the agency continues to fund agriculture because the sector is represented under each of the four new strategic target areas.
“Food-related research, despite not being listed as a target area, continues to be a priority for NSERC funding,” the statement says.
The coalition of Farmers for Investment in Agriculture said the cut coincides with a tsunami of contributing factors holding back Canadian agriculture research and innovation.
“At a time when most countries are making huge investments in farming to capitalize on our growing world food demand, Canada has decreased public research funding for agriculture by 40 per cent since 1994 and has lost over 10 per cent of our research scientists,” the coalition said.
“At a time when the United Nations is expressing fears of a potential food crisis, countries like Canada have a responsibility to increase their commitment to food production,” says William Van Tassel, vice-chair of the Fédération des producteurs de culture commerciales du Québec, one of the coalition’s members. “By cutting agriculture from its priorities, the council seems to be disconnected from the current global reality.”
Farmers for Investment in Agriculture recently called upon the House of Commons Agriculture Committee to undertake a thorough study of Canada’s agricultural research commitment to determine our ability to keep up with the growing need for innovation in food production.
The Grain Growers of Canada, another of the coalition’s member groups, believes the NSERC decision will have a long-term and wide-ranging impact. “When it comes to innovation in agriculture, it is putting our farmers at a disadvantage,” said president Stephen Vandervalk. “The council controls the agenda for university research funding so this is a real setback for Canadian farmers. We need more of a competitive edge and that means more research – not less.”
The loss of research funding could affect the University of Manitoba more than other Canadian universities because of its strong emphasis on food science, Wittenberg said.
The move to eliminate food research is a blow, not just to food science, but to agriculture in general, said Wittenberg.
Agriculture is a key player in food production, public health, resource management and the environment. NSERC’s cuts will severely hamper Canada’s ability to conduct vital research in those areas, she said.
“As I read it, anything that addresses global food security, that addresses food safety, that addresses a changing lifestyle for improved health… is all out.”
The university’s agriculture faculty received $3.2 million from NSERC over the last three years, including strategic grants and other sources of funding.
Food scientist Rick Holley received roughly $1.5 million from three strategic grants for food science research over the last 11 years. The last grant worth nearly $550,000 runs out at the end of 2011. He may not be able to apply for another one in his subject area.
“I’m not a happy camper here,” said Holley. “It’s going to personally affect me significantly.”
There are other NSERC programs that could continue to fund agricultural research. But they are usually small grants for “very basic stuff,” Wittenberg said.
To continue food-related research, the university will have to look for alternate funding sources, she said. Grants from the provincial government and industry exist. But they are invariably dollar matching and often market driven in scope.
“The opportunities to do strictly public good research are diminished.”
Wittenberg wouldn’t comment directly on the reasons for NSERC’s decision. But she said the agency’s new focus appears to be in line with the federal government’s research priorities as outlined in the March 3, 2010 speech from the throne.
“The language that I’ve seen is that it’s directly related to their wish to be more closely aligned with the science and technology strategy that the federal government communicated in its throne speech.”
Digvir Jayas, the university’s associate vice-president for research, said some food research might still fit into NSERC’s other areas, such as environment.
Jayas, a biosystems engineer and an international authority on grain storage, said he has previously managed to get NSERC funding for research projects by linking spoiled grain to food safety. His work may not fit the criteria any more, he said.
“It certainly will be more difficult for agri-food researchers to receive funding from the strategic advanced program.”
Wittenberg worried multinational food companies might choose not to locate here if they get the impression that Canada is no longer a good global citizen in food security.
“Would they consider coming to Canada if there is an environment here that suggests there is no federal support to develop new technologies or to work with those kinds of companies to address some of our global issues?”
Wayne Easter, Liberal agriculture critic, called NSERC’s cuts short sighted in view of warnings from the United Nations about an impending global food crisis.
“If there’s ever an area we should be spending money on, it’s research.
And we’re losing research dollars. It’s as simple as that.”
Formed in 1978 as a departmental corporation, NSERC today has a budget of nearly $1.1 billion, up from $588 million in 2001-02. The agency is funded by Parliament and reports to it through the minister of industry. [email protected]
– RICK HOLLEY, U OF M