Canada’s role in meeting humanity’s biggest challenge

In 40 years’ time the world will need to have increased global food production and supply by 100 per cent to provide adequate nutrition for its nine billion or more inhabitants.

This implies an annual growth in agricultural productivity of 2.5 per cent, from the same or less land. Over the past three decades, despite very significant global investment in agricultural research, global productivity gains have averaged between one per cent to 1.4 per cent per annum, despite the fact that the amount of land available increased as rainforests were cut down.

And this has been without the significant challenges that will be created by future changes in our climate, changes that mean countries like Canada will be required to produce significantly more food per acre as regions farther south turn to uncultivable desert.

By 2050, Canada, even without any changing climate, will be one of only a handful of countries that are still net food exporters. These challenges will only be met with a significant increase of investment in research and innovation to develop new environmentally sustainable, but more intensive, agricultural practices, new approaches to combating existing and emerging plant and animal diseases, new ways to reduce waste, and new ways to ensure safety in the food storage and supply chains.

Canada has much to contribute

Canada is a nation that still enjoys the respect of much of the rest of the world, way above its weight in terms of population or global economic impact, because of its espoused and demonstrated commitment to compassion, fairness, decency and human rights.

What more basic human right is there than the right to an adequate, nutritious supply of safe food, and clean water? Without this we die, and all other rights are meaningless.

In human history, from the earliest social congregations to the present day, the fundamental role of government has been to ensure this right, and recent world events such as those in Tunisia have shown us the social and political upheaval that results when governments forget this. Ensuring that the world is adequately fed is morally the right thing to do, and it is in our national DNA to do so.

Canada has much to gain

This is not just an altruistic vision that Canada must help feed the world. There is the hard-nosed economic reality that affects particularly all three Prairie provinces. For example, in Manitoba the cash receipts from farming, food processing and sales are twice those of Hydro and mining combined: 25 per cent of Manitoba’s “manufacturing” output is based on the agriculture and food industries that provide one in four jobs.

Eighty per cent of Canadian agricultural produce is exported. The potential for this to expand as the world demands more and more food and other bioresources, will have a very significant positive impact on economic growth in Canada as a whole.

How to respond?

So how can Canada rise to the challenge of raising agricultural productivity over the next 40 years? It must continue to invest, but at increased levels, in research and innovation on its own and in partnership with industry.

And it must be prepared to consolidate that investment around existing centres of expertise in order to create the critical mass that science needs to be successful.

In Manitoba, we see that the provincial government understands and supports this agenda within the constraints of its limited financial means.

But recent signals from the federal government, such as: the announcement of the closure of the Cereal Research Centre with the loss of about one-third of the staff and the distribution of the remainder to different parts of Manitoba; the sale of six of its research farms across Canada; the divestment of community pastures; the withdrawal of funding from provincial bodies like the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council, seem to be signals of disinterest and disengagement in this vital agenda.

Why Winnipeg?

Winnipeg has the world’s greatest collections of expertise in cereal grain science research and innovation. Over the last seven years there have been lengthy and inconclusive discussions around the vision of consolidating that expertise into a single Centre of Excellence that will maximize the synergies available through multidisciplinary research and development.

This vision, especially powerful as an aid to assist Canada to provide solutions to the twin challenges of rising world populations and changing climate, is undeniable.

But the provincial government has been unable to commit to this vision on its own. The City of Winnipeg seems oblivious to the vital importance of maintaining this expertise in Winnipeg or even Manitoba. And the federal government apparently abandoned this vision in favour of short-term exigencies, dispersing, not consolidating its expertise.

We hope this is just a hiatus in effective communication and that in the very near future we will see the signs of a serious commitment to building upon and consolidating, not reducing and dispersing, existing cereal and grains research and innovation capacity, so that we may rise to both the humanitarian challenge and the socio-economic opportunity.

What do we need?

Despite the outward indications, we are encouraged by suggestions that the federal government is giving serious consideration to putting its support behind the concept of a consolidated Centre of Excellence and we applaud them for it. But we are concerned that without a clear and immediate declaration of that intent, the damage inflicted by these short-term measures will lead to an irreversible loss of this very significant opportunity. If Canada does not rise to the challenge of contributing to the solution of feeding the world’s growing population, no amount of self-congratulatory praise or purchase of overexpensive military hardware will be able to protect its citizens from the chaos and anarchy that will follow global mass hunger and starvation. Tunisia was but a minor perturbation and warning.

Michael Trevan is dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences and a professor of food science at the University of Manitoba.

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