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Skepticism greets push for innovation

Government wants to tap into emerging markets, meet demand for healthy products, and 
encourage environmental and energy sustainability, but some regions want water pipes

The federal and provincial governments are making innovation a central plank in their agricultural spending, but some would rather see the funds spent on more mundane necessities of farm and rural life — like water.

The revamped Growing Forward 2 program will see Ottawa and the province invest $176 million in strategic innovation programs over five years. But not everyone who came to a public consultation on a bitterly cold night in Brandon last week was impressed.

“We came here tonight because we thought you had a pool of money that we could bid on and do something with it. Now it’s just a bunch of goofy stuff,” said Denis Carter, reeve of the Rural Municipality of Woodworth northwest of Brandon.

Not so, said Loni Scott, assistant deputy minister of the Agri-Food and Rural Development division of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.

“I don’t know if it’s really ‘goofy stuff,’” she said. “Really, it’s about agriculture and food-processing competitiveness through innovation.”

But some at the consultation said regional water pipelines are the higher priority.

David Single, reeve of the RM of Westbourne, noted the two levels of government pledged to “drought-proof” the province in an agreement signed well over a decade ago.

“A good part of it was done, but we’re being left out,” said Single.

“If we can’t grow the stuff because we don’t have the full infrastructure, we can’t even think about going the rest of the way. There are people hauling water in this weather and it’s not fun. It’s also darned expensive and not good for the environment.”

Scott confirmed funding for regional water pipelines was not in the new agreement signed by provincial and territorial ministers in September of last year.

“It’s always a choice of where you want to invest money,” said Scott, adding that expanding water supplies via new pipes would be “very expensive.”

Inadequate water supplies in the southwest corner of the province make it difficult to operate livestock operations, said Ross Tycoles, from Pipestone.

“It’s about survival,” said Tycoles. “Innovation is great, but in the western part of the province, even in wet years, there’s no water.”

Attendees at the meeting, one of five consultations held in the province, were given an overview of Growing Forward 2, which ups funding for strategic investments aimed at industry innovation by 50 per cent, or $35 million a year.

“There is far more that could be done and that is needed than the dollars will enable,” said Gerald Huebner, director of MAFRI GO Teams.

The goal is to help Manitoba farmers and the food sector adapt to a changing world, including emerging markets, new consumer demand for healthy products, environmental sustainability, declining energy availability, and volatility in foreign exchange rates.

Huebner pointed to China’s recent pledge to triple dairy production — a change that could open doors for Canadian providers of genetics, technology or forages — and to consumers’ growing interest in “eco-labelling,” which aims to assess the overall environmental impact of products or process.

In a globalized world, Manitobans have to invest to stay competitive, he said.

“Simply (put), how can we do it better, cheaper and faster with more profitability in a way that’s adaptable and sustainable?” said Huebner.

The latter point was an issue for Ian Robson, a rancher from Deleau.

He said programs are needed to address society’s and industrial agriculture’s tendency to “overwhelm the land” with ever-increasing demands for more productive acres, even as urban encroachment, erosion, and “potential” losses due to herbicide contamination and disease issues reduce the amount available.

“Never mind the human resources necessary to produce food,” said Robson. “The resources of talent to work the land are becoming fewer in North America.”

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