John Kennelly is dean of the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences at the University of Alberta and president of the Canadian Faculties of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine. Douglas Hedley is executive director of the Canadian Faculties of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine. This is submitted on behalf of all 13 deans of agricultural science and veterinary medicine across Canada.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recent announcement that the world food price index now surpasses the peak level in the food price spike in 2007-08 raises serious concerns about the ability of the world to feed itself over the next several years.
Demand for food is increasing due to growing populations and incomes, particularly in Africa and east and south Asia. Meanwhile, staple food stocks are declining in relation to world demand, with small changes in production causing greater variability in prices.
Increased price volatility seems inevitable given the effects of climate change, more frequent devastating floods and droughts, and urbanization and industrialization that will reduce available arable land and remove water from food production.
In Canada, higher prices may seem to be a good thing for farmers, but it’s important to remember that food production input costs such as energy are also rising regardless of whether farmers are into organic, local or intensive high-input agriculture. Few experts are forecasting sharply lower production costs.
Worldwide pressure on food availability and prices abroad will certainly give rise to strife, particularly in Africa and Asia.
Canada has a unique opportunity to help solve this pending global crisis. Research to increase agricultural productivity is the single most important investment needed to address this looming scenario.
Increased production will have to come from research into improvements in technology that will generate better yields and more nutritious foods.
Productivity increases must come from higher yields since using more land for agriculture would lead to significant destruction of forests and ecologically fragile areas. In turn, this would generate still more greenhouse gas effects, which drive climate change and reduce yields in many parts of the world.
Agricultural productivity growth has slowed over the past 20 years in the world and in Canada due to reduced public investments in research. Through our universities and other publicly funded research institutions, Canada can raise agricultural productivity levels to more sustainable levels.
Why should Canada, with a relatively small share of the world’s population, invest more heavily in agriculture and food research?
Greater research funding not only offers the potential for better food productivity, safety and quality, it strengthens Canada’s ability to produce the next generation of scientists and expertise required by governments, the private sector and universities. Research in universities is the foundation for training highly qualified personnel increasingly needed in the postindustrial economy.
High-quality food exports are a critical part of Canada’s agriculture and food system and agriculture is one of the few sectors with a positive trade balance.
We have a demonstrated capacity for developing new crops and increasing the nutritional value of food products. Examples include canola, edible flax, edible soybeans, peas, beans and lentils, and high-quality fruits and vegetables, along with high-quality grains.
Canada needs to be doing research to address current and potential threats to agriculture around the world. Examples include: Ug99, a new virulent race of rust that is rapidly spreading from Uganda; mad cow disease, avian influenza and other animal and plant diseases. If unresolved, these problems will lead to income losses for farmers and increased government costs for income stabilization. Research is a far less costly approach.
Yet, in a move we find most puzzling, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has removed novel and functional foods from its priority list, claiming this cutting-edge research no longer meets the overall requirements of Canada’s Science and Technology Policy, even though Life Sciences remains as a priority.
Joining forces with universities and scientists in other countries and international organizations is immensely important – not only to protect Canadian production but to gain important knowledge from working with scientists around the world.
Canada has the opportunity and the capacity to increase agricultural and food productivity, create highly qualified personnel for our future, and improve the nutritional quality of Canadian foods, offering healthier products for consumers at home and abroad.
In the process, we will contribute to the stability of world food supplies and moderate the strife that inevitably stems from food insecurity and hunger.
Researchinuniversities isthefoundationfor traininghighlyqualified personnelincreasingly neededinthepostindustrial economy.