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Is agricultural research “back”?

March 29, 2017
By: 
Serge Buy
CEO
Agricultural Institute of Canada

The Liberal government was elected in 2015 with a platform promising significant investments in agricultural research.  The mandate letter given by the Prime Minister to the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Minister upon his appointment clearly identifies investing in agricultural research to support science and innovation.  

The main difference between the platform and the mandate letter was the disappearance of $100 million over four years in additional investments in agricultural research.  The commitment made was in the platform, but it was no longer found in the mandate letter.

Regardless, the government made some investments in agricultural research in 2016 and continued in the 2017 budget.  Some of these investments were not directly for agricultural research but certainly could impact it.  

Here is a short list of some of the investments announced in 2017:

  • $80 million over five years to replace the Sidney Centre for Plant Health (BC),

  • $70 million over six years to further support agricultural discovery science and innovation, with a focus on emerging priorities (such as climate change and water conservation),

  • $200 million over four years to three departments including AAFC to support clean technology research and the development, demonstration and adoption of clean technologies.

These were all welcomed announcements.  

But others portions of the 2017 Budget raise both expectations and concerns.

Scientists will be pleased to see the creation of a “Chief Science Advisor” position.  But the fact that the position is primarily to advise and coordinate raises concerns.  Other such positions in the federal government exist - with little or no teeth, no powers and mainly as a public relations role.  The expectation from the scientific community is for someone more involved and the budget of $2 million set aside for that “related secretariat” is not promising.

The Agricultural Institute of Canada’s hope is that the government will choose someone with a good understanding of the role of agriculture and agricultural research.  It would be disappointing if the government chose to ignore a sector that contributes to a positive trade balance, supports so many jobs and is such an important part of our GDP.

The government will also review government business innovation programs, including at AAFC and the SRED tax incentive program.  While reviews can be positive, it would be interesting to see the mandate.

The government will also develop a new federal science infrastructure strategy.  This announcement, which includes a review of existing investment in federal science infrastructure, could also be seen through the prism of a much larger budgetary announcement where the federal government will begin a “three year horizontal review of federal fixed assets”. The government “spends roughly $10 billion annually to purchase, construct, renovate, repair, maintain and operate owned and leased capital assets – the review will look to identify ways to enhance or generate greater value from government assets.”  Again, reviews can be positive but the underlining tone is divestment.  While there are no signals that this is where the government is going with respect to federal science infrastructure assets, there will need to be wide-ranging consultations prior to making any decisions.

The 2017 Budget is, in the parts where it is clear, positive for agricultural research.  The issue of concern is what it doesn’t say.  It doesn’t reaffirm the importance of agricultural research and leaves a lot to the imagination. We all need to remember that the days of large deficits will not last, and cuts will need to be made at some point.

The Budget is indeed innovative – not due to its investments in innovation – but rather by its focus on women and Indigenous people.  That is a positive development that can only benefit our sector through broadened horizons.

The focus on climate change is also positive for agricultural research and our sector can only support the government’s efforts.  AIC’s annual Conference this year (April 24-26, 2017 in Winnipeg) is themed entirely on the relationship between agricultural research and climate change and how agricultural innovation can impact the environment.

A number of years ago, agricultural research was seen as crucial for Canada’s economic development and wellbeing.  With a focus on other sectors due to a loss of agriculture’s prominence in Ottawa, the federal government has not considered agricultural research as a key part of its strategy to strengthen our country.

So is “agricultural research back?” It’s too early to say. In 2017, as we’ve learned, the devil is in the details and a healthy dose of hope tempered by cynicism is usually prudent.