It could be the lost year for agriculture research in Canada.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) says its research could be sidelined by COVID-19 this year.
But the Prairie wheat and barley commissions that invest millions of dollars in that work are urging the federal department to reconsider and continue important projects.
Why it matters: A disruption in research will mean significant delays for advances that farmers rely on to stay competitive, such as new crop varieties or production techniques.
“From all indications they have kind of said so far that there is no plan in place for 2020 for the field, lab and greenhouse (research), which leads us to believe that with no plan they are likely not to happen,” Pam de Rocquigny, general manager of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association, said in an interview.
“So we’re encouraging them to look at fellow provincial research institutions that have put plans into place. The same with private research institutions. They are continuing with their field season with plans to keep things safe and allow key things to continue. We’ve been encouraging AAFC to look to those examples and we’re saying what can we do to make sure that some of these critical research activities that are scheduled to happen can still proceed.”
AAFC has said certain critical work, including feeding livestock, will continue, de Rocquigny said.
But it hasn’t said much more, leaving de Rocquigny and her fellow commission representatives, in the dark.
The commissions are hearing AAFC will implement a pan-Canadian policy on research this year in the wake of COVID-19. But the commissions want AAFC to review projects by region. The pandemic is not as widespread in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, de Rocquigny said.
“At the same time I understand the importance of keeping staff safe,” she added.
But given other researchers, including universities and private seed companies are continuing to do some field research, AAFC should be able to do the same, she said.
“We’ve heard that field season will be significantly restricted so we’re just trying to seek clarification sooner than later,” de Rocquigny said.
“We don’t want to see a total loss of the 2020 season… We want to make sure that there has been a good assessment of what should continue, and what significant impacts it would have if it didn’t, and if it did still proceed how could they put a plan into place to make sure their staff remain healthy and safe.”
The seeding window is short. Having not heard exactly what AAFC’s plans are is a concern, she said.
“It’s a complicated puzzle, but being complicated or difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to tackle it,” de Rocquigny said.
“You look at the overall picture and it doesn’t look like some of these things are going to happen in 2020, but we are still encouraging them to consider what can be done.”
If AAFC doesn’t go to the field this spring, or its research is significantly reduced, that raises questions, including whether multi-year research agreements are extended or not.
“If there is no field season then we start to tackle those financial questions.
“We want a timeline. What is the drop-dead date? I don’t know if they know that, or if they do they haven’t shared it.”
In an emailed statement an AAFC spokesperson said that “health and safety of our employees, and all Canadians, is the primary consideration in the department’s decision-making with respect to science-related activities.”
That means the work at AAFC research centres is being done on a “critical services only” basis, but that also allows them to provide some critical time-sensitive services to the agriculture sector including:
- Distribution of breeder seed to seed producers, and the mitigation of pest infestation on AAFC land to protect adjacent property;
- Protecting the long-term integrity of science assets through genetic material, land, orchard and vineyard stewardship (i.e. seeding with crops, applying fertilizer, pruning and spraying vineyards and maintaining long-term – greater than five-year – crop rotations); and
- Protecting research infrastructure (i.e. irrigation systems or major scientific equipment).
“These actions do not allow, at this time, for field-based research projects that require physical presence in our fields or laboratory facilities, nor non-field research in laboratories and greenhouses to be conducted,” the statement reads.
AAFC also says it continues “monitoring the situation closely” and will work with collaborators “… as we explore how and when we can initiate further science activities.”