The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)
Agri-Food and Life Sciences
Research in Canada:
The Need for a Reality Check
K. K. Klein,
The University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta,
Canada T1K 3M4
The emerging life sciences economy promises exciting new opportunities as a result of new research technologies, processes and products in agriculture, forestry, human health, pharmacy and the environment. It is anticipated that new industries will create products that could lead to an improved quality of life and be sustainable environmentally, economically and socially. The agriculture and agri-food industry is a key component of the life science economy. In addition to producing healthy and nutritious foods, agricultural plants and animals can be used to produce fuels, building materials, plastics, drugs and other desirable consumer products.
Agriculture is a huge and productive industry in Canada. The country has a very modern and competitive agricultural industry that provides a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of primary farmers and their families, as well as for many people who live in small rural communities. A vigorous and thriving agribusiness industry depends on the highly skilled and hard working primary producers who provide the raw materials for their operations.
Research in the life sciences is creating an enormous potential for the Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry. Life scientists have the ability to develop innovative new products that cater to the increasingly specific demands of consumers. The industry could be affected greatly as a result of these opportunities.
Much of the Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry has faced enormous economic, social and environmental stresses in recent years. Internationally traded commodities have been subjected to prolonged periods of low prices. Primary producers have been forced to adjust to low commodity prices and rising input costs by enlarging their operations, diversifying into non-traditional enterprises, and searching for new technologies that might reduce average costs of production. Genetically modified crops appear to offer genuine advantages: higher yields as a result of more effective weed and insect control as well as lower overall use of herbicides and pesticides that reduce stresses on the environment.
Four recent developments have dimmed the prospects of a life sciences revolution in agriculture. First, growing numbers of consumers have become extremely worried about the long term safety of genetically modified foods. The opposition has arisen in response to fears that genetically modified foods might be injurious to human and animal health. Well-organized consumer groups, particularly in western Europe, have organized very effective protests against genetically modified foods, resulting in refusal of a growing number of wholesale and retail outlets to accept products unless they are free of genetic modification.
Second, increasing fears of long-term adverse environmental consequences from the introduction of genetically modified species have spurred environmental and consumer groups to resist the introduction of these products. This has caused governments to be more cautious in their approvals of new products.
Third, uncertainty surrounding the acceptability of genetically modified products has reduced the incentives for adoption of new inputs by primary producers. To capture returns from their investment in development of the new products, life science companies have begun to charge farmers technology fees for their use. The added cost of using these new inputs, combined with increased anxiety about finding a market for the resultant output, has created doubts in farmers minds that have led to a reluctance of many to purchase and use the new inputs.
Fourth, incentives for conducting life sciences research have been reduced and, as a result, major life science companies have begun to shed the agricultural components of their businesses in favour of the more profitable pharmaceutical and nutritional parts. Though the products of most research in the life sciences can be patented, and the protection of intellectual property was strengthened in the Uruguay Round Agreement of the World Trade Organization, access of genetically modified products to key markets and a lengthened approval process have reduced the financial returns from investments in research and development.
It seems clear in hindsight that life science companies badly mishandled the introduction of first-generation genetically modified crops. The herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops offered no clear benefits to consumers and they raised widespread suspicions that food safety and environmental concerns were being compromised in the stampede for profitability of the life science companies. Breakdowns in the food inspection systems of several countries at the same time as genetically modified crops were entering the market have intensified the fears.
Until the concerns by consumer and environmental groups can be dealt with in a convincing manner, it appears that the life sciences revolution will not make a large impact on primary agriculture in Canada. Although the potential for new agri-food products and processes is growing rapidly as a result of continuing research in the life sciences, primary producers cannot afford to radically change their practices to incorporate the new technologies until consumers demonstrate a sustained demand for them. Regulations will need to be changed to not only facilitate development and adoption of new inputs and processes but also to protect handlers and consumers of the products from contaminated or unwanted materials. Cost-effective, identity preserved supply chains will need to be developed to permit the delivery of specialized products to consumers around the world. Regardless of the progress in research, development and adoption of new life science technologies, it is likely that most of the Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry will not change quickly or radically from its present state.