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Alberta agriculture experts sounding alarm over research cuts

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WATCH ABOVE: Stakeholders in Alberta's agriculture research sector are sounding the alarm on what they call a lack of dialogue and debate surrounding “dramatic” funding cuts made by the UCP government. Taz Dhaliwal explains – Mar 1, 2021

After seeing the backlash the Alberta NDP government’s Bill 6 farm safety legislation incited when it was introduced in 2016, industry experts are wondering why that same passionate concern isn’t there when it comes to cuts to research in the agriculture industry made by the UCP government in 2020.

“You know the cuts that were first implemented were quite drastic,” said Ken Coles, the executive director for Farming Smarter, “and it was literally sort of ending the Alberta government’s role in research and an extension and so that meant a lot of lay offs.”

Around 250 jobs in the province’s agriculture and forestry industry were slashed last year, due to tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts, which some say will lead to devastating long-term impacts.

Read more: Retired Alberta Agriculture researcher calls provincial cuts ‘devastating’

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“When you cut research, often the impacts aren’t going to be felt until a few years down the road, so we’re just starting to see some of the impacts now,” retired agronomist Ross McKenzie said.

Through the Alberta’s government’s recent changes, government researchers have been transferred to universities and colleges, but their support staff have been let go.

“This time, the agriculture industry asked for the change, they wanted to see reinvestment into research after losing ACIDF (Agriculture Crop Industry Development Fund),” Coles explained.

“After a series of consultations, what came out didn’t replace the grant; it created something entirely different.”

The province created RDAR (Results Driven Agricultural Research).

Coles says the government touted it as a one stop funding agency that would empower farmers to decide how to spend public investment in research and extension.

“But this government completed the gutting of Alberta Agriculture’s research and extension work, cuts to agriculture service boards, cuts to applied research associations and a transfer of agriculture research,” Coles said.

“In addition to this, the Canadian Agriculture Partnership program is mostly frozen… RDAR is supposed to take over two programs — Accelerating the Advancement of Agricultural Innovation and Adapting Innovative Solutions in Agriculture — that funded $12 million in research annually,” he adds.

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Coles goes on to say while many Albertans understand and appreciate government fiscal responsibility, especially given the circumstances surrounding the pandemic, there is still an “undeniably large decrease in investment”, which he calls a loss of public-focused human resources and a “detached relationship between producers and government.”

Read more: Alberta cutting 930 jobs in social services, agriculture, wildfire management: AUPE

Global News received a statement from Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen.

“Alberta’s government, starting in 2020, committed $370 million for agriculture research over the next 10 years – more than all other prairie provinces combined,” the statement reads.

“After consulting with thousands of Albertans, they overwhelmingly agreed that farmers and ranchers should decide Alberta’s agriculture research priorities, not government officials.

“The creation of Results Driven Agriculture Research takes the politics out of agriculture research and ensures that farmers and ranchers are in the driver’s seat.”

But stakeholders say that funding doesn’t replace the initial cuts.

“There’s a number of applied research associations across Alberta that are lead by farmer-producer organizations, and each organization received a fixed amount of money from the government each year,” McKenzie said. “Now they’re in a situation where they have to apply for that money through RDAR.”

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McKenzie said what the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry is doing is “deceiving” and suggests consultations were hastily conducted, with many in the industry not being given a sufficient amount of time to even learn about them taking place.

McKenzie also says he fears these latest changes are diminishing Alberta’s ability to be competitive and innovative, especially in comparison to other countries.

Coles says that Farming Smarter believes while it may seem like a good thing some research resources are remaining in agriculture by being transferred to post-secondary institutions, it has serious concerns regarding long-term stability.

“First, these transfers come with Alberta Agriculture funding for two to three years, when the funds run out, post-secondary institutions will compete, mainly through RDAR, to maintain support for scientists, infrastructure, and projects,” Coles stated.

“All while the institutions face significant budget cuts, to make things even more precarious, everyone will compete for drastically diminished funding and that’s when the bubble bursts,” he said.

Coles says he’s very concerned for the future of publicly-funded research and innovation development and is encouraging stakeholders to have more dialogue and debate surrounding the latest developments around agriculture research.

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