13, 2004: There's talk in Ontario about changing
our approach to the research that drives change in our food
system. Stakeholder input on strategic research options is
being sought by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario.
The options under consideration hint at major long-term changes:
- Focusing research on two outcomes: improved health and
- Structuring research in value chains. Two chains -- primary
production systems and the bio-economy - to enhance competitiveness
and three value chains -- food, public health and environment
- to improve health;
- An emphasis on collaboration among researchers and building
large interdisciplinary teams for coordination and integration
of research; and
- Ensuring that research leads to innovation.
I'm encouraged but also cautious.
It is urgent that scientists come out of their silos - out
of their narrow scientific specialties. One cow with mad cow
disease is not just a matter of understanding prions - those
folded over proteins that result in sponge-like brains - it's
also about markets and trade policy and what it takes to maintain
consumer confidence in the food system. A move towards collaboration,
interdisciplinary teams, coordination and integration is a
Linking research to innovation is the greater challenge.
Consider organic agriculture -- one of the significant innovations
in the food system of the past quarter century - this innovation
developed on farms, in the marketplace and as a consumer preferences
long before science sat up and took notice. It emerged almost
in spite of the research establishment. While science can
lead to innovation, it is just as important that science gets
on side with innovations driven by farmers, markets and consumer
preferences. A research strategy that assumes that science
and innovation have a cause-and-effect relationship - with
science needing to come first -- will continue to fail us.
Even today, our science is ignoring the next major innovation
already emerging in food markets and consumer preferences
- the re-localization of food.
The focus on competitiveness as primary outcome is troubling.
At a simple level, the new strategy's emphasis on competitiveness
-- generally understood as global competitiveness -- risks
squandering our research dollars on a continuation of the
misguided effort to industrialize Ontario agriculture and
make it the lowest cost producer of bulk commodities. There
is no long-term economic sustainability nor entrepreneurial
satisfaction in this treadmill to ever lower prices. At a
deeper level, science has a more noble purpose than winning
marketers. Science can get at complexity and help us understand
the creation of which we are a part.
It is more important to understand how the world works than
For more information on the Agricultural Research Institute
of Ontario's development of strategic research options, visit:
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