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Canada lagging in ag research

Canadian agriculture is being shortchanged by governments when it comes to basic research compared to other countries, according to John Cranfield of the University of Guelph.

“We are standing still while other countries are getting ahead of us,” said Cranfield, citing statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The professor, an agricultural economist, said government is investing more in food processing and conservation issues, and seems content to leave farm research to the private sector.

“The government should be investing more in agriculture research because it provides a clear public benefit,” Cranfield told attendees at a university-sponsored conference on national food strategies.

“Private companies won’t get involved in work when social benefits are stronger. There is a risk that research and development programs won’t go anywhere. The results could also produce competition.”

National checkoffs

He urged farm groups to develop national checkoffs to support research that would benefit their members much along the lines that Laurent Pellerin, chairman of the Farm Products Council of Canada, recently proposed.

Those programs would be handy insurance to have if government support for agriculture research completely dried up, added Cranfield, who also decried the decline of agriculture extension services and experimental stations.

Food security will become increasingly important as food production is outstripped by higher demand caused by population increases and rising affluence in countries such as China and India, said Murray Fulton of the University of Saskatchewan.

“The yield growth rates for most crops have slowed,” said Fulton.

He urged that governments pay more attention to the productivity of the whole food value chain.

“The food-processing sector is not as productive as the agriculture component,” he said.

“Improving it and the productivity of the transportation system would ease the pressure on food prices.”

Cranfield also made a presentation on the role of the agriculture and food industries in the growing obesity epidemic. His conclusion is that the main culprit in expanding waistlines is snacking and overeating. The introduction of microwaves and foods geared to that technology “have generated snacking to the level that’s become a fourth meal.”

Another factor is the approach of government regulators in dealing with unwholesome ingredients such as trans fats and excess salt, he said. The Conservative government is relying on voluntary action by food manufacturers to get rid of trans fats as well as reduce the levels of salt in prepared foods.

Increased costs

Requiring the removal of unhealthy ingredients or limiting the use of others increases the cost of producing a food, he added. Meanwhile, taxing people to encourage them to eat healthier foods isn’t productive, he noted.

“The Canada Food Guide outlines a proper diet. A fat tax is likely to hit income earners the hardest,” he added.

More promising is a colour-coded advisory system some countries have adopted to inform shoppers about the most and least healthy foods, he said.

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