Exporting our research model

July 31, 2010
Written by
The recent G20 Summit hosted in Toronto will long be remembered for its $1-billion security price tag, frustrating road closures to allow for motorcades travelling to and from Pearson International, street demonstrations both anarchical and sedate, and occasional photo-ops involving the visitors and their happy host.

It was truly much ado about nothing.

But agriculture was on the agenda, and the leaders are clearly on the same wavelength when it comes to the importance of food production. The group issued a communiqué calling on countries to “harness the private sector for agricultural innovation.”

The fact the communiqué was issued during a Canadian summit shouldn’t be surprising. Collaborative work between government and university researchers, along with private sector agriculture firms – often a combination of all three groups – has been the norm for many years. You can add to this model the willingness of many growers to offer time and space to host applied research trials; the greenhouse sector is among the leaders in this level of co-operation.

The Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is a classic example of such innovation synergy. It was set up in 2007 with significant funding support and commitments from the federal and Ontario governments, but with the expectation the work would attract considerable industry support.

VRIC was quick to respond to the G20 message.

“It’s the reason why we exist,” explains VRIC CEO Dr. Jim Brandle. “Vineland’s research and innovation mandate and business model is to collaborate and harness private sector resources specifically for agricultural innovation.”

Board chair Donald Ziraldo agrees. “At Vineland, we have the vehicle to do exactly what the G20 is calling for. And we want all of Canadian industry to take advantage of our unique position to lead consumer science, applied genomics and sustainable production for horticulture.”

Brandle adds that the centre’s business model works directly with the private sector, industry, science and other partners. “They are investing in drought resistance science, sustainable/organic research, innovation for food products that we can take to the other members of the G20 and the rest of the world.”

Government funding is certain to decline over the next few years. It’s the global trend. We’re seeing a number of countries in Europe introducing serious austerity measures to reduce government spending, most notably Greece and England, among others.

Canada is committed to reducing federal budget deficits. The deficit topped $53.8 billion for 2009-10, and is projected to only decrease to $49.2 billion in 2010-11. Ottawa now projects deficits will continue to 2015 at the earliest before budgets are at least balanced. Spending cuts are inevitable, and research programs will not be immune. Given that horticulture doesn’t wield the same clout as the livestock, poultry or dairy sectors at the national level, the cuts will no doubt be deeper for our sector.

And that’s why the growing involvement of the private sector in agricultural innovation is so important. The VRIC model, among others in Canada, will be replicated in other regions. Companies will increasingly be called upon to pay for research and innovation. On this subject at least, the G20 got it right. ■

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