Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Cereal Research Centre will be shuttered within two years, but a senior department official says much of its work will continue.
Industry leaders are less confident in the wake of last week’s announcement to close the facility that earned Western Canada its breadbasket reputation as part of a five to 10 per cent cut in AAFC’s budget.
“What I’m not seeing is a vision for the future from a public agricultural research point of view going forward,” said Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney. “I’m just seeing a reaction to a problem, not an explanation of what the vision is for the future and that’s a big concern to me.”
Stephen Morgan Jones, AAFC’s director general for science partnerships, said infrastructure should not be confused with research priorities. “I don’t think it’s a secret… the centre in Winnipeg is a facility that has probably gone 10 years past its useful life,” he said.
“There just wasn’t $150 million available to go out and rebuild or replace the structure in Winnipeg.”
Wheat breeding, genomics and disease resistance, including work on Ug99, a virulent wheat rust, will continue at AAFC’s Morden facility, he said. Oat breeding and the rest of the centre’s plant pathology research will move to AAFC’s Brandon Research Centre.
Morgan Jones said AAFC will focus on germplasm development, and selling new wheat lines to private companies before the commercialization stage.
“We believe there is an opportunity for the private sector… to run that type of work probably more cost effectively than we can and then we can really put our emphasis on making more crosses and doing what we call the public good stuff like keeping rust resistance genes available in our varieties so there is long-term protection in the industry,” he said.
“I think the fact that we haven’t had a serious outbreak of rust for over 50 years in Western Canada is a tribute to our investment in upstream plant disease work has been effective.”
The CRC is the only one of AAFC’s 19 centres being axed. But seven of the 36 research farms across the country will also close.
The Agri-Environment Services Branch’s (formerly known as PFRA) Community Pasture Program is winding down. The Farm Income Programs Directorate’s Manitoba staff will be cut to six, from 16, according to, Jeffrey Vallis, a spokesman for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSCA). There are also cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and to co-op supports. (See sidebars)
The research centre started as the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory in 1925 at the University of Manitoba. Over the decades it has contributed billions of dollars to Canada’s economy and farm income.
The centre’s demise doesn’t bode well for the proposed Cereal Centre of Excellence, which was to combine the Cereal Research Centre, the Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Research Laboratory, the Canadian International Grains Institute and Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre into a new $150- to $300-million facility.
Neither Morgan Jones nor AAFC’s media liaison, would reveal how many people are employed at the Cereal Research Station, never mind how many jobs will be cut or transferred.
According to Richard Phillips, executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada, who was briefed last week by AAFC officials, 41 positions will be cut, including four research scientists.
One research centre employee said three research biologists will go.
AAFC’s website, last updated in 2007, says the centre has 230 people, including those at Morden. There are 29 research scientists, including four in Morden.
According to several sources 51 or 57 positions will move to Morden and six to Brandon.
AAFC will sell its land at Glenlea and buy more land near Morden for plots, a source said.
“It’s been a difficult week, but people have been pretty professional,” one employee said requesting anonymity. Staff have orders not to speak to reporters.
The 97-year-old Morden Research Centre, which opened its new $14.6-million facility in 1989, is currently underutilized, Morgan Jones said.
“It was built for approximately 16 to 18 scientists and… we only have about three scientists at that location,” he said.
“We would need to make a few changes at Morden for it to be able to accommodate the move…. We anticipate the centre can handle between 80 and 100 people.”
However, according to a source the Morden facility lacks sufficient office and workspace, greenhouses and phytotron facilities.
Morden Mayor Ken Wiebe and Brandon’s Shari Decter Hirst said they are overjoyed with the prospect of new, high-paying jobs coming to their communities.
The Grain Growers of Canada supports that approach, but is disappointed Ottawa is cutting research positions, Phillips said. As well, there is no indication that savings from scrapping the old facility will be reinvested in research, he said.
The Grain Growers also oppose AAFC’s decision to cut a Saskatoon-based researcher specializing in sprayer technology. Farmers spray more now because of reduced tillage. They need access to independent information, he said.
The centre will complete its contracts with groups like the foundation before closing, Morgan Jones said.
Kane farmer Bill Toews, a former WGRF director, said he fears Ottawa’s support for research is waning. Publicly funded research is not trade distorting and boosts farmers’ profits. Cutting it could trigger more income support program spending, he said.
“It’s like not fixing the roads but paying truckers to replace broken axles,” Toews said.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz defends the cuts, saying they will lead to long-term prosperity.
Ottawa contributes 75 per cent of the funds invested in Canadian research.