Agriculture groups raise concerns about provincial cuts

The Alberta government is looking at ways to change how it conducts agriculture research at the same time it has laid off some of the staff doing that work.  

'We need scientists to give direction in different areas. Farmers don't have that expertise'

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, discussed cuts to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry at a conference in Nisku this week. (Nathan Gross/CBC )

The Alberta government is looking at ways to change how it conducts agriculture research at the same time it has laid off some of the staff doing that work. 

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen is holding public consultations on what he calls "farmer-led research," where producers set the priorities for government research. 

This has raised concerns among agriculture groups about job cuts and the possible privatization of research. Dreeshen's ministry laid off 50 employees before Christmas; about a dozen were involved with agricultural research.

A white paper recently prepared for the government by Alberta's agricultural commissions and commodity boards suggested the government not make major cuts and look to transfer some research functions to colleges and universities. 

"Industry recognizes the necessity of reduced government spending; however, also wants to emphasize the importance of government research funding and scientific research to support industry competitiveness, sustainability and profitability," the document said. 

Tom Steve is general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission, one of the organizations involved in preparing the white paper for the minister. 

Steve said commodity boards and commissions — which include Alberta Wheat Commission,  Alberta Pulse Growers, Alberta Barley, Alberta Canola and Alberta Beef — want a say in what the government studies, since they contribute funding to the research. Steve said the previous NDP government moved the focus toward sustainability and climate change and away from increasing productivity.

"When our boards look at what they fund in terms of research, they're looking at how can it improve the farmer's competitiveness, because we're operating in a global market," he said.

Scientists play key role

Possible changes to how Alberta conducts agricultural research were topics of discussion at this week's Alberta Federation of Agriculture conference in Nisku. 

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said at a question-and-answer session during the conference that producers shouldn't get the only call on what areas the government should research. 

"We need scientists to give direction in different areas," Jacobson said. "Farmers don't have that expertise. They're not PhDs. And they're not looking that far ahead. They're looking at immediate problems."

The government is suggesting it may move some research functions to the private sector. Dreeshen's press secretary, Adrienne South, said the government will have more to say in the future. 

"Alberta has great research universities and agri-technology businesses engaged in important work to advance our agriculture sector," South said in an email.  "We want to help leverage those resources to ensure maximum benefit for our farmers and ranchers, and Alberta's economy."

Some research must be done by government

Steve said the government needs to maintain control of surveillance for insects and fusarium head blight, a disease that damages cereal crops. 

The white paper said bee health and safety, animal health and assurance, and food safety monitoring must stay within the ministry. On the latter, the paper said efficiencies could be found to reduce overlap, but cuts could create more problems than they would solve. 

"The economic risks of production and trade loss far exceed the costs of surveillance and monitoring," it said. 

The paper recommended that Alberta Agriculture transfer the Field Crop Development Centre in Lacombe and the crop genetics program to the University of Alberta. 

Poultry and livestock research could also move to the University of Alberta, Agri-Food and Agriculture Canada, or the veterinary faculty at the University of Calgary, the report said. 

The province is currently holding public consultations across Alberta and gathering responses to an online survey. 

Steve said representatives from the commissions, universities and applied research associations are scheduled to meet with the minister next week.