The future of beef research in Canada
This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Beef in BC magazine and is reprinted with permission.
Telling the future by looking at the past… is like driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror – Herb Brody… but history helps illuminate the present. Shortly after Confederation, agriculture became a nation-building tool to settle the west and prevent US expansion. Agriculture provided freight for Canada’s railroads, fed the urban population, and supplied millers, processors and exporters. Canada’s Experimental Farms Stations Act of 1886 supported productivity-boosting research. This provided even more freight, food, and economic spin-offs. Canada’s farm population declined as technology and mechanization reduced the need for labor, and an expanding economy produced new jobs in other industries. When Canada’s first agricultural census was completed in in 1931, 31.7% of Canada’s population lived on farms. By 2006, 2.2% of Canada’s population lived on farms. Agricultural productivity continues to increase, but other economic sectors have grown even faster. Last year, Canada’s beef industry and economic spin-offs contributed $32 billion to Canada’s economy, about 1.7% of Canada’s $1.8 trillion gross domestic product.
Governments need to cut deficits while supporting health, education and other programs that Canadians demand. Very few Canadian voters are beef producers, and the beef industry is a relatively small proportion of Canada’s economy. Maintaining public support for applied beef research may be challenging.
The future is made of the same stuff as the present – Simone Weil… In a competitive global beef industry, standing still is falling behind. Canada’s beef industry will need innovations that improve production efficiencies to keep beef competitive with pork, poultry, and foreign beef in both domestic and export markets. We will need beef quality and food safety research that supports consumer confidence and demand for Canadian beef.
The only thing we know about the future is that it is going to be different – Peter Drucker… Research can do more than find ways to reduce production costs and improve product value. Research can also inform effective, science-based regulation (e.g. federal animal transport regulations), generate fact-based consumer information (e.g. nutritional value of beef), and validate the environmental, animal welfare, food safety, and product quality attributes of Canada’s beef industry. Research into issues that concern the general public was once viewed as the government’s responsibility. The public’s questions have now become the industry’s concerns, and we need to make sure we have the right answers.
The trouble with the future is that is usually arrives before we’re ready for it – Arnold H. Glasow… Public research investments are increasingly guided by industry investments. Lack of industry investment is used to justify cutting or redirecting public research and extension programs. The University of Saskatchewan has Canada’s only strong, comprehensive forage, cattle and beef research program. Most universities have shifted towards narrowly-focused animal welfare, genomics, or environmental research. This attracts public funding for today’s hot topics, and may be less costly than production research. But it compromises the education of tomorrow’s researchers. Many of today’s animal science graduates are from an urban or non-Canadian background. Their outside perspectives are good, and their enthusiasm and sincere desire to contribute to the beef industry are invaluable. But these promising new researchers need opportunities to learn about Canada’s beef industry. The Cattlemen’s Young Leaders mentorship program is providing some up-and-coming researchers with this exposure.
The future, according to some scientists, will be exactly like the past, only far more expensive – John Sladek… Cattle producers support research through provincial and National Check-Offs (NCO). Provincial cattle associations decide how their NCO dollar is invested. In 2012, an average of 15 cents went to research (Beef Cattle Research Council; BCRC), 70 cents went to marketing (Canada Beef Inc.), and 13 cents went to provincial initiatives. But a declining Canadian beef herd and inflation have reduced the number of NCO dollars as the cost of research is increasing. Industry is expected to fund a larger share of both applied and public-good research projects, and industry investments are often required before a university or government will create or fill new research jobs or facilities.
Check-off and public funds support research that doesn’t interest for-profit companies. Private research is important, but it doesn’t typically fund research that won’t produce a saleable product (e.g. extending the grazing season to lower winter feeding costs). Or research to strengthen the industry in general, but no one in particular (e.g. animal welfare, environment, food safety and antimicrobial resistance). Public and industry check-off funding supports this industry-good research. Even in 2007, when 550 pound calves were selling for under $600, less than one fifth of one percent of the sale value of their animals went to support Canada’s national marketing and research programs.
The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet – William Gibson… Pressures imposed by decreasing government support for research and declining check-offs will lead funders to be more strategic in their research investments. In the 2009-13 Beef Science Cluster, the BCRC, Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) pooled their research funds ($85 government:$15 industry), and invested them in 32 industry-selected projects with specific research and technology transfer outcomes. In early 2012, the Beef Value Chain Roundtable commissioned a National Beef Research Strategy. The strategy showed how improving funder alignment could help avoid over-funding of “hot” topics (e.g. omega-3 beef), and ensure adequate funding for less exciting but critical research (e.g. forage breeding). The strategy also lists specific priority outcomes that Canada’s beef industry wants to achieve over the next 3, 5 and 10 years. These outcomes form the basis of the research and extension activities supported under the 2013-18 Beef Science Cluster. In addition to BCRC, ABP and AAFC, the new cluster includes industry investments from Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, Manitoba Beef Producers, and the Quebec Beef Producers Federation ($75 government:$25 industry). The BCRC is developing a simple National Beef Inventory to help coordinate research funding, and to assess how the National Research Strategy’s priority research outcomes are being supported by industry and government research funders.
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