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Research Funds Hinge on Collaboration

jul14_gv_1The seed industry faces a number of issues. We can point to Bill C-18, developing a value capture model in cereals, low-level presence, mycotoxins and unrestricted trade. These are all important issues that deserve attention. However, the issue that I’m going to focus on is the need to support basic research in the seed sector and a system that brings meaningful results to those who grow and manage crops in Canada.

The Canadian government has told the industry that it will support the seed industry in many ways, but taxpayers will no longer support all levels and types of research. That is, the free lunch is over. Throughout the years, the seed sector has felt somewhat entitled to get a disproportionate amount of funding from various levels of government. This decision means we have to step up our game and, in fact, we are.

The industry is not only contributing to research in a more meaningful way, but it is also providing significant support to public institutions. One example of that is the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, which brings in substantial outside funding and supports a myriad of projects that benefit the seed sector. In the process of working on various research projects, the faculty are also training undergraduate students and graduate students who will someday work in our industry and help advance it into the future. All in all, it’s a good investment.

Farmers continue to finance research by supporting the Western Grains Research Foundation and the various commissions and grower groups that provide research dollars across Canada. In a recent Pulse Beat article from the Manitoba Pulse Growers Association, I was impressed that this relatively small organization is funding 56 projects in 2014 for a total expenditure of $1.5 million. So when governments back away, the private sector has been willing to invest.

While governments seem to be backing away from research, they are by no means backing out of it. As resources are limited and fewer dollars have to stretch farther, governments are taking a different approach at dolling out research money. They are looking for industry involvement and opportunities to collaborate. The mantra I keep hearing is the need to support an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to research.

In the seed sector, we often look to plant breeding to solve our production woes. And although new varieties and traits bring improved attributes to the market, we’ve seen a resurgence in the need for sound agronomic research to complement variety development. That is farmers want access to new varieties, but they also want to know how to optimize the performance of this variety on their farm.

The industry is well positioned to do this and it’s starting to become more common. It’s not just about plant breeding — it’s much broader and more integrated than that. Farmers will still ask about seeding rates or plant populations, which are very practical questions that still need to be answered.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are entering into an era of big data. It will be and has been extremely useful, but we are just now really getting into the crux of all this data. How will this data be used? What advances can it bring to variety and hybrid selection, variety and hybrid development and crop production? How it will be managed, stored and shared? These are all questions that we don’t quite have the answers to.

This transition in research funding has some benefits. Going forward, the industry will need to lead in some areas and collaborate in others. Collaboration can and will involve the public sector, but will be more reliant on the private sector. Farmers will also be more involved — both in funding and providing direction as to how research money will be spent. Collaboration is never a bad thing and getting the value chain together ensures that the projects being funded are relevant and meaningful. It also means that the seed sector in its entirety needs to be engaged and willing to learn where to plug in and how to invest.

With that, the industry also needs to ensure that federal institutions and universities conduct basic research that will someday lead to significant innovations in the field. These are often high-risk projects that the private sector will not touch and should be in the public domain.. Governments need to know they still have that responsibility.

Peter Entz, Canadian Seed Trade Association president

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