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Where there's smoke there should be fire. Unfortunately, in the case of agricultural research and development, the embers in the hearth barely smoulder. Governments loudly proclaim the "dynamism" of the agri-food industry and put their faith in the ability of R & D to deliver cost efficiency, environmental sustainability and new market-responsive products (all at the same time). A brighter world of niche markets and value-added products, using improved hybrids and ever more expensive equipment, is always just around the corner. Farmers, however, are constantly faced with another reality. Despite drought and starvation in many parts of the southern hemisphere, farmers in the western world continue to overproduce for a saturated market that can afford to buy. The only way to stay in business, even with government subsidies, is maximum yield per unit of land and inputs, further compounding the chronic malaise of an under-priced, over-supply of food produce.
A golden opportunity to break this cycle sits waiting on the sidelines, and agricultural R & D will have to play a leading role so that farmers can take optimum advantage. The future of farming no longer lies just with food production; the capability and technology now exist to produce chemicals from agriculture, fibers from agriculture and energy from agriculture. These are all essential commodities for modern society and all that is required is a concerted effort to develop the techniques, the technology and the infrastructure to bring them to market in a cost-effective manner.
The benefits for farmers are two-fold. Economically, growing crops for non-food use provides true diversification throughout the sector. One dairy farmer can start a sweet corn U-pick or a home-made cheese plant for tourists; but as soon as two or three more join in, the market niche evaporates from over-exploitation. Non-food crops will add a wide range of markets, ranging from environmentally friendly printing inks, to ethanol for replacing light crude oil imports, to long fibres to be blended with short fibres from recycled materials; these will provide not only alternate sources of income, but also improved levels of income. Consumers appear to be willing to pay more for energy than for food, and diverting land use to non-food crops will also reduce over-supply, in turn improving food prices. Further, farmers will not be caught in the weather induced catastrophe that many in Ontario and Alberta face in 1992. Heavy dependence on one or two crops (i.e. corn, wheat) means that with poor yield due to excessive rain and untimely snow, income will be low; low yields often means higher prices, but with bumper crops to the south in the U.S., prices have not budged.
Environmentally, alternate non-food crops have every promise of being as large a part of a farm's strategy for sustainability as present efforts with rotation and ground covers. Warm-season grasses can improve organic matter levels through root mass, short-rotation forestry can utilize marginal lands rather than just idling them in set aside programs. Non-food crops have less need for purchased inputs, don't need attention paid to physical appearance to placate fussy consumers, and are in the black on the pollution balance sheet, taking back in as much CO2 as they give off during processing and utilization.
Too much of agricultural R & D has been aimed at the short-term, and much of the blame can be laid at the doorstep of governments who's politicians need a timely announcement for self-serving purposes. There needs to be a re-direction and commitment towards the long-term, especially to the examination of real alternatives for agricultural production, not just a switch from growing corn for cows to growing corn for cars. Yes, there is a risk that some of these new ideas and ventures won't pan out, but there is an even greater risk from not even trying to develop solutions that offer potential far and above what farmers have to look at today. Governments do face an enormous burden due to the need to financially support agriculture because of the poor market conditions. However, turning away from long-term R & D will only compound the problem because viable solutions will not evolve by happenstance. There is smoke and there could be some fire in agricultural R & D; now is the time to stoke up the fire.
Copyright © 1992 REAP Canada.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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