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Balance needed in agri-food research in Canada

Agri research in Canada is hamstrung by a shortage of financial and human resources.

The Manitoba Cooperator – The pursuit of basic science in agriculture and agri-food has been squeezed out of federal priorities in recent years, speakers told an Agriculture Institute of Canada conference.

“Funding remains a challenge for us,” Robert Gordon, dean of the Ontario Agriculture College (OAC), told the delegates to the AIC conference, which was crafting a research policy for the 21st century.

Despite agri-food’s status as one of the leading manufacturing sectors, employing one in eight Canadians, “research funding available to us is lower than for other sectors,” he said.

“Universities face a changing landscape trying to ensure we have the capacity to conduct research,” he noted. “A single institution can?t do it all and we have to partner with other institutions.”

Wilf Keller, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio Inc., said Canada has become very weak in basic research. “There is not enough funding to support a university faculty. We’re seeing a terrible waste of young brain power.”

Global research projects have become increasingly important, but Canadians cannot receive funding to participate in them, he said.

While many farm groups have research checkoffs, no way exists to integrate the funds into common projects, he added. For example the partnership of Canterra, Agriculture Canada and the Alberta Wheat Commission leaves out the enhanced research impact of including wheat farmers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario in the project, he noted. “We could do a lot of basic research to make sure our wheat industry will be competitive 30 years from now.”

Universities have taken on a greater role as the federal government has closed labs and cut or not replaced scientists who did much of the fundamental research, Keller said.

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