Turn in agriculture research priorities

Nasima Junejo, Research Manager | Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions

International and national agricultural research and innovation policies have notably shifted focus towards climate change, impacting the trends of public research goals and fueling concerns about the future of agriculture research. This shift is becoming more evident in Canada as we approach the new Sustainable Agriculture Policy Framework (SCAP), which takes effect on April 1, 2023.

Shifting research priorities involve many factors, including weather challenges, new technologies, government policies, the changing program landscape, and the scientific capacity and advancement of Canada’s agri-innovation system. Agriculture research priorities have gradually become more complex in the last ten years. For instance, in 2010, Canada’s top agriculture research priorities were human health and food nutrition, and bio-resources conservation. However, in 2018, scientists focused on breeding innovation to improve and protect crop production within a sustainable cropping system. Wheat and barley farmers rely on and invest in research on new varieties from public breeding programs.

The severe drought of 2021 was alarming for Canadian agriculture when Canada struggled to meet international grain demands. In 2022, the Government of Canada decided to take serious action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in all industries, including agriculture, with the target of a 30 per cent reduction in fertilizer emissions by 2050. This target caused a drastic turn in the scientific strategic plans of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). The shift of AgriScience research clusters under SCAP, which is cost-shared by the federal government and producer commissions, must include a minimum of 30 per cent of project value geared to climate change and the environment with at least 15 per cent dedicated to greenhouse gas emission reductions and carbon sequestration. This forces all clusters, including wheat and barley, to reorder their priorities and projects and, in some cases, increase the share of producer funding. Research priorities are shifting away from productivity as a top priority toward mitigation and adapting to climate change.

The Canadian agriculture community has been involved in environmentally friendly initiatives for many years of unquantified efforts. For over a decade, Canadian farmers have adopted best management practices, including 4R Nutrient Stewardship, variable-rate technologies, crop rotation systems, zero tillage, etc. Canadian producers are part of the leading world communities to start best management practices on their farms at an early stage. The federal government’s goals have raised concerns and frustrations in the agriculture industry. Many questions are raised about these priorities. Are they too aggressive to follow? Are these realistic expectations? How do budget cutdowns impact ongoing research activities? There is still a need to revisit our priorities to achieve a balance between research needed by producers and the government. Producers and the agriculture industry need research priorities that ensure science impacts not only the scientific realm but also the daily lives of Canadians, delivering affordable, nutritious, equitable, and environmentally sustainable food without compromising profitability and food security.