Canada's largest research council has dropped food and agriculture as a strategic target area just as several organizations, including the United Nations, express fears that a global food crisis is emerging.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a $1.1-billion agency that funds university research, has removed food-related research from its target funding areas this year and will instead focus on projects concerning the environment, natural resources, information technologies and manufacturing. In a statement, NSERC insisted many agricultural-related topics still fall within the four priorities and that "food-related research, despite not being listed as a target area, continues to be a priority for NSERC funding."
But the move has frustrated some researchers who say it's yet another sign that rich countries such as Canada are putting less emphasis on food research just when it is most needed.
NSERC's decision "sends a very negative signal," said Allan Mussell, a senior associate at the George Morris Centre, an agriculture research organization based in Guelph, Ont. "We've got all these challenges on the horizon and we seem to have not understood what role Canada can play."
Last week, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization raised concerns about a food crisis after reporting that its food price index had hit a historic high. The FAO has already estimated that food production will have to increase 70 per cent by 2050 as the world population expands to 9.1 billion people from about 6.8 billion people in 2010.
Food production has kept pace with population growth for decades mainly because of research-led innovations, such as new plant breeds and better faming techniques, that have boosted crop yields in big farming countries like Canada. One of the best examples of this kind of innovation has been canola, developed in the 1960s by government-funded Canadian scientists and now close to surpassing wheat as the largest crop grown in Western Canada.
But farm productivity in Canada and elsewhere has slowed markedly in the past 20 years, according to several studies. The decrease has coincided with a drop in public spending on research and there are now fears that future food demands won't be met.
Governments "have reallocated [money]away from just trying to grow more food," said Richard Gray, a professor of bio-resources policy at the University of Saskatchewan. "If you are trying to feed the world, that's a really bad thing because you have less research and you get a productivity slowdown."
He added that while private companies are doing more research, they tend to focus on tweaking existing crops to make them more profitable instead of conducting basic research that leads to major breakthroughs.
The federal agriculture department spends about $230-million annually on research programs and while that has increased by roughly $40-million in the past five years it's still far below the amount spent 20 years ago. It's also a fraction of the $4-billion Ottawa spends annually on farm-income-support programs.
Marc Fortin, assistant deputy minister for research at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said agriculture faces numerous issues and the government has committed more resources to study food safety and environmental concerns as well as crop production. "It is a fantastic challenge," he said. "That's why we are seeing, around the world, increasing discussion about food security."
Douglas Yungblut, president of the Agricultural Institute of Canada, knows all about the decreasing emphasis on research. The 90-year-old institute, which publishes four scientific journals, has seen its membership and finances drop sharply in recent years. New members are getting harder to find because there are fewer young scientists coming up and enrolment in university agriculture programs has been falling. The non-profit organization is now in the midst of a strategic review to figure out how it can keep going.
"We've really struggled to replace revenue that we used to get when we had a lot more [members]" Mr. Yungblut said, adding that the institute's budget is about $400,000 annually. "We're just kind of limping along I guess at this point."