Agriculture innovation in Canada needs a long-term approach, researchers say

Jessica Galang
February 17, 2021

As Canada aims for $75 billion in agri-food exports by 2025, the federal government has invested major dollars into increasing the country’s capacity. In 2018, the government launched the $3-billion Canadian Agricultural Partnership to support innovation of new technologies and grow the country’s agri-food sector through funding programs for producers.

Following the announcement, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada noted that investing in scientific research with an innovation focus — like increasing productivity through automation or using clean energy — was a key component of “maintaining the profitability, competitiveness and sustainability of Canada’s agriculture and agri-food sector.”

The investments could be a massive economic payoff for Canada, as agriculture contributes over $143 billion annually — or 7.4 per cent — to the country’s GDP, and employs 2.3 million people across the country. But Canada needs to conduct research in a way that supports long-term innovation, experts tell Research Money, or there's a risk that many research efforts will be short-term and piecemeal.

Coordinating efforts

Coordinating research efforts and resources is a challenge. Peter Philips, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and affiliate of the Global Institute for Food Security, says that while there is significant investment from the federal government, money spread across research agencies tends to go towards short-term projects. They may not go beyond researching a single crop, for example.

“We need longer-term and more strategic investment,” Philips told Research Money in an interview. “There's nothing wrong with the system we have. It's just that we miss some really good opportunities.”

Deborah Buszard, an agricultural scientist and former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, says Canada should consider a more “integrated” approach to its investments.

Buszard gives the example of the oceans research community in Canada, which, in the early 2000s, started coordinating between universities and federal ministries and agencies. It created a Consortium of Canadian Ocean Research Universities to align efforts, and a Council of Canadian Academies expert panel to define research priorities. Eventually, the Oceans Research in Canada Alliance (ORCA) was created in 2016, which significantly contributed to oceans science investment, including the Oceans Supercluster.

“Increasing coordination between industry, scientific and regulatory sectors is key to Canada developing a sustainable and strong agriculture and food sector,” Buszard wrote in an email.

There should also be more opportunity for industry and universities to pool resources together where competition isn’t a concern. “Quite often, there's a long list of ways to go and you're not quite sure which pathway to follow,” says Philips. “If you pool all the failed results, sometimes that narrows down to one or two critical care pathways to impact.”

COVID-19’s effect on research

COVID-19 has expanded the role of technology in solving problems, Ian Potter, CEO of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, told Research Money. For example, automation and robotics were already considered a strong contender for reducing labour costs before COVID-19 showcased the importance of remote technologies.

Now that COVID-19 is a high priority for governments at all levels, Potter says it’s important not to make research investments a simple targeted response to the coronavirus. “The things that we focused on historically before COVID haven't gone away, they're still causing trouble,” he says.

In the long term, recruiting people from STEM disciplines can help tackle other challenges related to agriculture, like making sense of crop data.

“We need to recruit these great students that are not always necessarily what our traditional students used to be, but the students that see their future in computing sciences or big data,” says Stanford Blade, professor and dean at the University of Alberta’s faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences. “We would also bring them into the mix alongside some of the more traditional disciplinary expertise.”

Investing in the future

Blade says that insufficient budgets for long-term results are a concern. Across the country, Blade says, it’s getting more difficult to find the money for long-term research.

Speaking from his experience at the University of Alberta, he said two recent research posts in the agriculture department were supported in partnership with funds from the Forest Resources Improvement Association of Alberta, the Beef Cattle Research Council and philanthropy from Dan Hays, former speaker of the Senate in Canada.

While the department could cover some costs, “current and future budget cuts will mean we will need this type of support in the future to keep expertise in critical sectors and disciplines,” says Blade.

In the case of Alberta, provincial budget cuts over the last several years in agriculture have been a source of concern in a sector that reported exporting over $11.6 billion worth of agri-food products to international markets in 2019.

With Canada consistently among the world’s top five food-exporting countries, the demand to feed the world will only increase, says Buszard, making agriculture investments with a long-term view critical.

“With our remarkably extensive land and water assets, we have an obligation to use the land wisely, not only for Canadians but for all humanity and the good of the planet,” she says.


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