After closing Winnipeg’s Cereal Research Centre, the federal government has invested $85 million in a new wheat research program in Saskatoon
A year ago, Ottawa announced it will close AAFC’s venerable Cereal Research Centre on the University of Manitoba’s Winnipeg campus because it would cost too much to upgrade it to modern standards. Many researchers formerly housed there are being transferred to Brandon or Morden.
More AAFC budget and staff cuts were included in this year’s federal budget including the closing of AAFC’s Regina research farm and dozens of technicians in all areas.
Others have quit because they don’t want to move. Some researchers, including current and past AAFC employees, say splitting up staff will make them less efficient, while synergies are lost by moving from the University of Manitoba campus.
Then last month Ottawa announced it will contribute $85 million of the $97 million allocated over five years to the new Canadian Wheat Alliance (CWA) created with the Saskatchewan government and the University of Saskatchewan to boost wheat yields. The National Research Council (NRC) and AAFC represent Ottawa in the alliance.
Industry observers are careful to say the new research alliance may provide some positive spinoffs, but they question at what cost.
“I see positives from the Canadian Wheat Alliance,” said one researcher, who asked not to be named. “But Ag Canada has less resources needed to do its job.”
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in an email that the department still has what it needs to fulfil its commitment to the CWA.
Stephen Morgan Jones, director general of AAFC’s Prairie/Boreal Plain Ecozone, says the alliance creates more research capacity with additional resources. The alliance is based on an 11-year agreement, he said.
“So it’s saying to me that our department regards this area as a key and important area for Canadian farmers and we are going to be in it for the long term rather than the short term,” Morgan Jones said in an interview.
The Crop Development Centre, like AAFC, has long worked on wheat.
The NRC, which has a new mandate to focus more on applied research, has the equipment and expertise in plant cell biology, high-speed genotyping and bioinformatics allowing it to glean important information from large data sets, he said.
Some, including the National Farmers Union (NFU), fear the federal government’s actions signal its desire to get out of crop breeding, handing it over to private companies.
“Now, the CWA is being set up to occupy our space and override the farmer’s interests,” NFU president Terry Boehm said in a news release.
Public researchers, including those with AAFC, have released at least 158 new wheat and barley varieties over the past 20 years thanks to farmers’ money distributed through the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), he said.
Seventy-five per cent of the wheat grown on the Prairies is from publicly owned varieties. In the future, however, AAFC wants to pass on its new wheats to the private sector, which could include farm groups such as the WGRF, earlier in the process. The money AAFC saves will be invested in more breeding, Morgan Jones said.
But over the next five years it’s business as usual, with AAFC continuing to register new wheat varieties.
“We are not going to exit and leave the producers high and dry in any way, shape or form,” Morgan Jones said.
Ideally, AAFC and the private sector will both do wheat breeding, he added.
“The public sector can take on some of the longer-term challenges and the private sector can focus on the short-term, commercial opportunities,” Morgan Jones said. “That usually gives the best result.”
But Martin Entz, professor of cropping systems and agronomy at the University of Manitoba, is concerned.
“Agriculture Canada definitely looks like it’s threatened and it really disturbs me,” Entz said in an interview. “I’m sensing that we’re actually ready to throw the whole thing away.”
Entz said one area in which AAFC has made significant cuts is in agronomic research.
“Because we have not rejuvenated that field-based science at Agriculture Canada I think it’s fair to say that we have fallen behind,” he said.
Farmers are facing tougher pests, including herbicide resistant weeds, and AAFC needs to step up, Entz said.
It should be working on “ecological intensification,” making farming more energy efficient and fighting pests through crop rotations, beneficial insects and integrating livestock.
Private companies won’t do that kind of research because there is no way for them to recoup their costs, much less make a profit, even though farmers and society gain.
“We have to keep a publicly funded group of scientists who are directly engaged in the research and development and the design of new cropping systems and new animal management systems for national security because agriculture is fundamental to our civilization,” Entz said.
“iPads and other gadgets are important, but you can’t eat them and you can’t drink them.”