Scholarly types come up with different numbers when they set about quantifying the returns on public investment in agricultural research, but they are all, without fail, extraordinarily positive.
University of Guelph agricultural economist George Brinkman summed it well in a 2004 paper by saying agricultural research is one of the highest payback uses for public funds.
So it was disappointing to read through Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s report on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s languishing research branch.
“Overall, we found that the department had not managed its research activities sufficiently to achieve its strategic direction,” the report said.
What is the department’s strategic plan? It is built around seven national priorities identified in 2006.
Enhance human health and wellness through food, nutrition and innovative products;
Enhance the quality of food and the safety of the food system;
Enhance security and protection of the food supply;
Enhance economic benefits for all stakeholders;
Enhance environmental performance of the Canadian agricultural system;
Enhance understanding of Canadian bioresources and protecting and conserving their genetic diversity;
Develop new opportunities for agriculture from bioresources.
Where is it falling short? According to the AG, the department has been slow to develop an action plan that would accomplish these objectives, funding sources were not clearly identified, there was a lack of predictable funding for approved programs, there was no long-term plan for renewing its aging corps of scientists, and there was no ongoing assessment of its aging infrastructure or whether it had the right equipment to do the job.
To its credit, the department accepted all of Fraser’s recommendations and says it is working on implementing them.
And in its defence, AAFC’s research branch was gutted along with most federal departments when federal Liberals decided to get tough on deficits in the mid-1990s. The same budget that axed the Crow benefit in 1995 also resulted in significant cuts to research funding – 37.5 per cent between 1995 and 2002.
Canada’s unsettled federal political scene, which has resulted in six ministers at the department’s helm over 15 years, can’t have helped. While it is up to the bureaucrats to develop a workable strategic plan, it’s the politicians who must come up with the money.
That period also formalized the privatization of research through the Matching Industry Investment initiative, which was designed to use public sector dollars to draw in private sector research investment. Commodity specific research “clusters” are the most recent manifestation of that approach.
Expecting industry to help pay for research isn’t a bad idea, but it also represents a double-edged sword. Private sector investment is typically based on proprietary control over innovations and on research that offers shorter-term returns on investment.
In a nutshell, many of the issues plaguing the state of agricultural research in Canada today were predictable, and in fact were predicted by knowledgeable people at the time.
“In the long run, the redistribution of benefits within the private sector could pose a serious concern for the viability of the Canadian producer and could jeopardize the success of the Agri-Food Policy Framework,” the Brinkman paper said.
“Agricultural research in recent years no longer has been able to offset other factors that have negatively affected farm income levels,” wrote Brinkman in his analysis six years ago. “In essence, Canadian farmers are improving their productivity, but not their incomes.”
If anything, the situation is worse today.
He argued that for as long as governments continue to support agriculture at all, research investment is a key priority. “Continuation of research funding is likely to generate far more income over time than would the same level of funding delivered through transfer payments.”
Brinkman also said Agriculture Canada needed to remain engaged in its own research, proprietary as well as open, in order to leverage access to private sector technology and to provide farmers with competitive alternatives. Not only would that ensure there were options available if, for some reason, private sector investment dried up, but it would serve as insurance against price gouging.
Leave that to market forces, you say? Judging from its reaction to Bill C-474, Canada’s canola industry is at serious risk of private sector researchers simply pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere at the slightest hint of public interference in their agenda.
Canada is paying the price today for decisions made 15 years ago, which raises the question of what decisions are needed now for the future. AAFC’s research branch needs a strong mandate and the resources to fulfil it. [email protected]