In the low-budget world of agriculture research—what comes first the research or the change?

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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December 1, 2004: It’s a conundrum. When we set priorities for farming and food research it is very easy to spend those hard-to –find research dollars just keeping up with change. When the pace of change is both fast and erratic – consider the impact of mad cow disease – it is understandable that we focus on relief, safety nets and recovery programs. Understandable but also problematic. Scrambling to keep up with change creates a pervasive feeling of loss of control. If farmers and food chain participants are to be masters of their own destiny, research and development priorities will need to drive change rather than rush to react.

The Ontario food chain has a structured process for reviewing and revising research priorities. Last week’s meeting of the committee that reviews agricultural economics and farm business research reminded me of the conundrum: do we react to change or drive change?

Opinions offered round the room harvested a long list of changes that need well-researched responses – yesterday. It would be easy to allocate priority research dollars to any one of the following:

  • The economics of preventing disease outbreaks versus the costs of managing an epidemic.
  • The cost and sociological impact of the regulatory burden created by nutrient management and new water standards.
  • The value of ecological services that legislated greenbelts will expect from farmers and landowners.
  • Cost implications of new food safety and traceability standards proposed as a result of the investigation into Aylmer Meats. (Editor's note: Beef products from the Aylmer meat plant in Aylmer, Ont., were recalled from store shelves and butcher shops in late August 2003 after allegations surfaced that the plant may have been illegally processing dead animals for human consumption.)
  • Impact of the erratic but steadily rising value of our dollar on farm and food imports and exports.
  • Business impacts from the proposal to extend health and safety legislation to all farm workers.
  • Impact of the doubling of ocean freight rates on our export potential.
  • New models for driving out production costs and maintaining competitiveness.
  • The cost of new U.S. border security measures.
  • The cost of occupational diseases associated with intensive farming.
  • Should deadstock be treated as a hazardous waste?

We also identified research that would drive change.

Consider the current weakness of agri-food value chains. Is this caused by structural problems such as adversarial relationships between producers and processors, by the lack of an internal process for determining fair shares of the consumer food dollar, or by he disconnect between price discovery and risk allocation. What value chain models will put all participants back in control of their destiny?

Consider the role of competitiveness. Often competitiveness has been listed as a top research priority because of its relationship to profitability and access to new markets. There’s a hitch, competitiveness is only one parameter of farm and value chain viability. U.S. agriculture is not very competitive but it is viable. The list of reasons starts with – massive subsidies. We need holistic insight into the broad range of characteristics that make up viability and provide control of our destiny.

Ontario priorities should include both research for changing times and research that drives change.



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