Farmers question the federal government’s commitment to publicly funded agricultural research
by Allan Dawson
Almost 700 Agriculture and Agri-Food (AAFC) employees across Canada, including 55 in Manitoba, have been notified their jobs are on the line.
Their unions say the notifications are part of a plan to eliminate an estimated 400 jobs as the federal government tries to cut spending.
The Brandon Research Station’s beef research will be moved to Lacombe, an AAFC communications official confirmed in an email last week. But the official declined to provide specific details about what research will be affected citing “employee privacy.”
“We are consolidating our national science capacity in key locations in line with our efforts to concentrate expertise and use our resources more effectively to generate the science and knowledge needed to advance the industry,” the AAFC official wrote in an email. “Consolidating activities will allow more financial resources to be directed at research and development and less on maintaining herds.
We will continue beef-grazing systems research, with those activities moving from Brandon, Man. to Lacombe, Alta.
There’s no official word on how related manure management and environmental research at Brandon will be affected. However, according to one unconfirmed report, there will be cuts in those programs too.
Calls to the head of Brandon Research Centre and AAFC’s regional director general were not returned.
“We’re very disappointed,” Manitoba Beef Producers’ general manager Cam Dahl said in an interview. “There’s no question about that. Of course research is a significant focus for us.”
The beef producers had funded beef research at the Brandon Centre, he said.
“We do place a great deal of importance on research and we will continue to do so,” Dahl said. “While we’re disappointed — and we are — that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop research in Manitoba. We will look for other ways to do that, whether it be with the Government of Manitoba or the university or other partners we will continue to support that work.”
Because the cuts are part of the federal government’s budget, the beef association is resigned to them, Dahl said.
“We’ll just have to adapt.”
Doug Chorney, president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers, said cutting AAFC staff is inconsistent with the federal-provincial Growing Forward 2 agreement, which is supposed to promote agricultural research and competitiveness.
“I don’t understand this move,” he said in an interview. “We weren’t consulted. It’s news to everybody and seems contradictory to what the government has been saying.”
Under Growing Forward 2 governments cut spending on business risk management programs for farmers to make research a priority, Chorney said.
All organizations change over time, but usually those changes are based on a plan. Farmers don’t know what the plan is, Chorney said.
AAFC says it’s improving service and saving money by reducing 28 programs to three. It’s also reducing layers of management and strengthening market access.
AAFC is focusing its scientific work on core priorities aligned with government priorities.
It could take months before the number of AAFC job cuts is known, union representatives said. Of the 350 AAFC staff who are members of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) and received Workforce Adjustment notices May 9, around 200 are expected to lose their jobs, said PIPSC president Gary Corbett. PIPSC represents AAFC scientists.
Of AAFC staff that are members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) 235 also received Workforce Adjustment notices. PSAC represents AAFC technicians and office staff.
Of the 22 PSAC members working for AAFC in Manitoba, 13 were notified they will lose their jobs, while nine will go through a selection process, said Bob Kingston, PSAC’s national agriculture union president.
“It’s a sad day,” Kingston said. “It seems like anything to do with science or conservation is going to be hit by these guys.”
The cuts are concentrated in AAFC’s Science and Technology and Market and Industry Services branches, PIPSC said in a news release. Affected employees include 144 commerce officers, 79 scientists, 76 information technology specialists, 29 engineers, 14 biologists, five research managers and three procurement officers.
Some of the affected staff are part of the Agricultural Environmental Services Branch, which was what became of PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) when it was rolled into AAFC several years ago.
“I hope the industry starts asking questions because if you look at how Canada got to where it is in agriculture, it’s exactly because of the kind of research that’s being destroyed,” Kingston said.
A year ago, AAFC announced it would close its Cereals Research Centre in Winnipeg mainly because it was too costly to refurbish. An estimated 41 positions were cut, although most of the cereal breeders and plant pathologists are being transferred to Brandon and Morden, respectively.
AAFC also announced a year ago it would sell community pastures and close or sell its shelterbelt tree nursery at Indian Head, Sask.
Ongoing cuts to AAFC have farmers questioning Ottawa’s support for publicly funded research, Chorney said.
“We are streamlining our program delivery and our organization to make it easier for producers and processors to do business with government and deliver results for the sector,” an AFFC communications official wrote in an email.
To that end there has been a 43 and 45 per cent reduction in AAFC travel and conference costs over four years and a 70 per cent reduction in hospitality costs over five years.