Producers collaborate to set the direction of provincial research by Lauren Comin, Director of Research Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions

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The research programming of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of the Government of Alberta has been in a state of flux for the past five years. Changing governing parties has led to a change in priorities and operating models. The 2019-2020 provincial budget has called for significant savings to be found in the area of primary agriculture. The overall reduction in the ministry is 9.1 per cent, with $34.1 million to be saved over the next four years in primary agriculture. Industry recognizes the necessity of reduced government spending; however, also wants to emphasize the importance of government research funding and scientific programming to support industry competitiveness, sustainability and profitability.

Commodity commissions and primary agriculture associations have collaborated to develop a white paper which directs government on the research needs of our industry and proposes a path forward to maximize our success.

Led by Alberta Wheat Commission, Alberta Barley and Alberta Beef Producers, the paper covers three areas of research: policy, funding and capacity.

The previous government had sought to develop a new research and innovation framework that was largely intended to support the policies they championed. The framework, which was neither built in consultation with industry nor supported by industry, would have seen a shift away from productivity-based research and towards sustainability and public trust. This framework was never finalized and was set aside when the United Progressive Conservative gained power earlier this year.

The White Paper proposes that, while the province should play a role in setting agricultural policy, that these policies be developed in consultation with industry. Industry groups have a strong presence in policy advocacy on both the provincial and federal level and work closely with one another to gather evidence to ensure strong, cohesive messaging. There has also been considerable industry investment and effort to develop key research outcomes in priority areas, and government policies and priorities should be complementary to these initiatives.

The crop industry has not had stable provincial research funding since the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, better known as ACIDF, dissolved in 2017. Even then, funding was provided in infrequent envelopes when the ministry finished a fiscal year with a surplus.  Funding for both the crop and livestock sector was brought into the ministry and the funding envelopes significantly reduced. The distribution of funding across sectors is not transparent and the decision-making process has not been well communicated. The agriculture industry needs predictable and stable funding of regionally relevant research.

In the producer-penned document, a new funding model is proposed. In this model, the funding is provided to a producer directed organization at arms-length of the ministry. This position ensures that funding is not lost at the end of the fiscal year and operations aren’t affected by election cycles. The board includes representation from both the crops and livestock sectors, in recognition of the critical synergies between them. Funding will be split in an equitable and transparent manner between the two primary sectors and funding decisions will take into consideration industry needs and impacts.

Alberta is unique in that they have research capacity within the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. In turn, the agriculture industry is unique within Alberta in that the research capacity of other industry’s is concentrated within Alberta Innovates under the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism. This speaks to producer’s level of involvement in research in their industry and the longstanding importance of agriculture to Alberta’s economic success.

Much of the capacity of the ministry is critical to producers. The White Paper stresses which services are essential and need to remain within the ministry, which are essential government services but should be transitioned to another ministry or subsidiary, and which should be transition to an alternative service model outside of the government.

An example of services which should remain within the ministry are the health and assurance functions which exist within both major sectors. For example, ministry staff survey and monitor weed, insect and disease pests to predict and reduce the threat to crops. The Minister also administers legislation, such as the Agricultural Pest Act, which is informed by the data collected by these specialists.

The province currently maintains a cereal breeding program at the Field Crop Development Centre in Lacombe focused primarily on development of new barley varieties. This facility is the home to three barley breeders and a complement of supporting scientists. However, the program has struggled in recent years from changing and restrictive government policies and constraints on staffing. The relevance of this program and its genetic output to western Canadian producers has declined. The program would more effectively serve producers if transitioned to a partnership between the University of Alberta, the ministry and industry. Such a partnership would also strengthen the existing wheat breeding program at the University, which focuses on breeding spring wheats for the short-seasoned parkland region. This is a significant transition that will require a willingness to cooperate and shared vision amongst all stakeholders. However, if carried out successfully, it will greatly improve delivery of crop genetics adapted to Alberta’s unique growing regions and strengthen the ability to train new scientists to serve our industry.

The industry has a vision for a strong agriculture sector, supported by a ministry that is supportive of the priorities of producers. Funding and programming should be directed by those with the best understanding of the needs of the industry, in collaboration with a government that has the needs of the industry, public good and economic competitiveness and sustainability as high priorities. Both Minister Dreeshen and Premier Kenney have been vocal about the need to put research back in the hands of producers. Producer groups look forward to working with the Minister and staff to see their vision come to fruition.

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