Government should do more to support agricultural science

Agriculture needs to respond to consumer demands for more information

The global production and demand for wheat are rising in a lockstep that leaves low carry-over stocks and an opportunity for Canadian farmers to cash in, says JoAnne Buth, CEO of the Canadian International Grains Institute.

Wheat is second only to rice as a dietary staple and shows no signs of losing its consumer desirability, she told the Canadian Agriculture Economics Society Conference in Ottawa last month. Since 1960, international wheat consumption has risen from about 250 million tonnes to more than 700 million tonnes per year.

Buth, a former senator and head of the Canola Council of Canada, said Cigi works to make Canadian grains the preferred choice among consumers around the world and that there are steps government and industry can take to advance that ambition.

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One is to continue supporting the Agriculture Canada value chain roundtable, which brings together farmers, processors, food manufacturers and exporters to share ideas and information, she said. The sustainable agriculture roundtable also needs increased backing, Buth said.

The government also needs to modernize the Food and Drugs Act because many of its provisions “are old and inhibit entrepreneurs from introducing new products,” she said in a later interview.

As well, it needs to rebuild the agriculture science capability of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to clear up a backlog of projects, continue funding for the Agri-Innovation Program and the Canadian Agriculture Adaptation Program, restore agriculture as a priority area under the National Science and Engineering Research Council and harmonize food regulations with key trading partners.

Respond to consumers

Jill Hobbs, a professor in the department of agricultural and resources economics at the University of Saskatchewan, said the food industry must respond to “the increasing consumer interest in where their food comes from, how it’s produced and what it makes different from competing products.”

Hobbs said consumers pay attention to food’s origin, its health benefits, the environmental footprint of its production, animal welfare and credible labelling. They want to know that the labels promising products meet certain standards are believable.

“Governments should play a role in assuring the verification labels are trustworthy,” she said.

At the same time, government and industry need to conduct more research “to gain a more nuanced understanding of consumer perceptions,” Hobbs said, adding that governments need to facilitate credible quality assurance claims by industry, and help industry gain access to international markets with programs such as traceability.

“They need to create an environment that encourages companies to invest to diversify and expand their products,” she added.

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