Government-led agricultural research will face cuts under the United Conservatives’ new provincial budget.
The budget, released Oct. 24, will slash spending in the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry by $88 million, dropping the department’s budget from $987 million in 2018-19 to $879 million in 2019-20.
Within the department, the primary agriculture division — which manages research and production — will be among the hardest hit, with cuts of $7 million in 2019-20, which is the current fiscal year. It calls for a total spending reduction of $26 million by 2022-23, bringing the division’s budget down from $77 million last year to $51 million by the end of 2023.
The government plans to cut its overall spending by $1.3 billion — 2.8 per cent — over four years, said Finance Minister Travis Toews. But with funding for health, education and social services frozen over those four years, other departments face much deeper cuts.
“This is a budget that is courageous — tackling the out-of-control spending of previous administrations,” said Toews, a rancher from Beaverlodge and past president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
“This is a budget that is compassionate — taking care of the most vulnerable and providing more resources for families and children. This is a budget that is thoughtful, reasonable and precise in its execution.”
The cuts in the Ag Ministry will mean fewer staff, with current vacancies going unfilled and the possibility of further staffing reductions in the years ahead. Staffing levels are also up in the air at the Ag-Info Centre, a call centre of experts who can help producers access information about crops, livestock, and farm management, among other things.
But what might be most concerning for Alberta’s producers is the province’s plan to shift its research priorities to farm groups.
While few details are known about what this will look like in practice, the province will be shifting its own research funding programs into the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a joint federal-provincial-territorial funding program, in an effort to streamline how funding is allocated.
Ahead of the election in April, Alberta’s farm groups expressed fears about the dwindling provincial research budget, after the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) was dismantled in 2016 and the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF) followed suit in 2018.
“When you take away one funding model with no plan in place, it’s been very difficult for us to figure out the funding for the future,” Alberta Wheat chair Gary Stanford said prior to the election.
“We need innovation and research for the livestock sector and the crop sector, so we need some kind of new program for the future.”
Alberta Beef Producers chair Charlie Christie and Alberta Canola chair John Guelly made similar comments prior to the election.
However, reaction to the provincial budget was muted.
A spokesperson for Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley said the organizations would not be issuing a news release on the budget while Alberta Beef Producers called it “a reasonable budget” that takes “a measured approach to spending reductions.”
“We were disappointed to see a 9.1 per cent reduction in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry expenses this year, but understand the fiscal constraints under which the government is operating,” ABP said in the Oct. 28 edition of its Grass Routes e-newsletter. “We hope the ministry will be able to maintain the effective programs and services that make our industry more competitive.”
The cattle organization also said it is “curious to see where the ministry will find $34.1 million in savings on research over four years.”
“We are concerned that savings will be found through reduced investment in research projects and infrastructure,” the article in the newsletter stated. “Investments in research and development are critical to enhancing the competitiveness of our industry.
“Producers and industry are prepared to make these investments, but the agriculture industry has limited financial resources and needs government support for research to compete in global markets.”
Most farmers support more research funding
Farmers who took an online survey by the Alberta Federation of Agriculture and sister organizations were asked about the future direction of plant breeding in Canada.
There is support for research, but with caveats.
- When asked if increased investment in crop development is required provided it ensures long-term stable funding for public and university breeding programs 68 per cent of those who answered agreed and 32 per cent disagreed.
- When asked if increased investment in crop development is required provided producers have oversight on how much is collected and what the funds are used for 64 per cent agreed and 36 per cent disagreed.
- When asked if increased investment in crop development is required to ensure Canadian producers have access to improved varieties to remain competitive 52 per cent agreed and 48 per cent disagreed.
- When asked if increased investment in crop development is required provided it encourages competition and higher levels of private sector investment in plant breeding 47 per cent agreed and 53 per cent disagreed.