Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Agricultural research: Follow the money.

I recently attended a presentation from the director of Research and Development at the Ministry of Agriculture. He was explaining how to apply for funding from the R&D fund, and what type of research was likely to be appealing. New crop varieties and biotechnology were at the top of the list. They pretty much were the list. You can check out the funded projects there.

I can't quibble with some of the research. Heck, I'm government-funded right now myself and I'm sure there's plenty who would scream in horror if they knew the tack of my research. So, I can't complain about $51,500 for a solar-operated irrigation system. Kind of cool - for application in other places, since we happen to live in a drought-prone province with looming water shortages. New grape and apple cultivars? That would make life more pleasant. Someone may as well get funding for developing the things that experimental gardeners and farmers do for free, I guess.

I have a few more questions about their funding of "Integrated production systems and practices that reduce agriculture's impact on the environment". First, I didn't see very much evidence of it in this year's funded projects. The word "sustainable" is very appealing, but if you can tell me how it figures in the project "Cool Season Corn Grown in Saskatchewan in Sustainable Livestock Production" I'll give you a prize. Corn is a "heavy feeder", requiring lots of nitrogen that, without suitable crop rotations (and even with, at times) our farmed-out soil requires massive chemical injections to provide. Corn is also used primarily in feedlots, not by farmers or ranchers pasturing cattle on grasslands which primarily made up this ecosystem before settlement. Feedlots may be "efficient" - bringing cattle to market in a shorter time than grass-fed - but can contribute to environmental degradation with results like those in Walkerton.

And in the end, I have to question who this research is serving.

Funny that I've never heard farmers who couldn't make it and had to give up farming, or those struggling, say, "If only there were a new crop variety I could have tried - that really would have made the difference!" or "If I had an efficient way to finish my cattle a month earlier, that would have made up for the US ban on Canadian cattle during the BSE crisis." Why is that?

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