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
- New models for driving out production costs and maintaining
- The cost of new U.S. border security measures.
- The cost of occupational diseases associated with intensive
- 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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