Pandemic threatens federal field research this year

But crop commissions urge AgCanada to follow example of universities, private researchers

AgCanada says public health orders will prevent it from doing field and lab work at its research centres, such as this one in Lethbridge. But universities and private research groups are doing plot work this summer, and cereal commissions want the department to continue with key research projects.
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COVID-19 threatens to sideline Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s field, greenhouse and lab research this year, but Prairie wheat and barley commissions that help to fund it want as many projects as possible to go ahead.

In a statement issued April 24, AgCanada seemed to all but rule out field work this spring.

“In response to public health orders, AAFC research centres scaled their operations to critical services only,” the department’s statement said.

“These actions do not allow, at this time, for field-based research projects that require physical presence in our fields or laboratory facilities, nor non-field research in laboratories and greenhouses to be conducted… We are cognizant of the impacts of a reduced field season and are working to minimize long-term impacts. We also recognize that projects are unique in their requirements.

“As such, AAFC is developing and updating various plans and strategies on how we will resume research activities when restrictions are lifted or reduced across the country.”

But the department should find a way to proceed with key research projects, said Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley, noting universities and private research groups have found ways to continue plot work this summer.

“Agriculture has been deemed an essential industry and funders of research feel that this work is critical to ensuring ongoing success for our producer members,” the two groups said in an e-newsletter. “The Canadian Wheat Research Coalition and the Canadian Barley Research Coalition are encouraging AAFC to work with our groups and other partners to develop contingency plans to maintain critical research activities.”

AgCanada has been sending “mixed messages” about its plans, said Pam de Rocquigny, general manager of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association.

Prairie cereal grower commissions haven’t given up hope that some of AgCanada’s more important research projects will go ahead on a case-by-case, region-by-region basis, and is urging the department to find ways to make it happen.

“They haven’t come out and said extremely black and white, it’s not happening,” she said.

“There has been some work done behind the scenes to see what work could be done… In talking with them, there seems there still might be a window. When they say ‘at this time’ is totally different than them saying ‘we’ve pulled the pin on the 2020.’”

In its statement, AgCanada said it has decided to “steward” its land and resources, but will continue to provide some critical, time-sensitive services to the agricultural sector. These include distributing breeder seed to seed producers and maintaining long-term (greater than five-year) crop rotations.

If AgCanada doesn’t go to the field, or its research is significantly reduced, it raises questions, including whether multi-year research agreements with the farmer commissions will be extended.

“If there is no field season then we start to tackle those financial questions,” said de Rocquigny.

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