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The troubles with the AAFC


May 3, 2010
By Marg Land


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Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada needs to improve the way it manages
research if it plans to achieve its goals – that was the finding of the
Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, in a report she recently
submitted to the House of Commons.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada needs to improve the way it manages research if it plans to achieve its goals – that was the finding of the Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, in a report she recently submitted to the House of Commons.

“The department’s research is important to Canada’s food production and its ability to compete internationally,” said Fraser. “We found serious problems in areas that are fundamental to conducting research, such as managing funding, capital assets, and human resources.”

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Fraser went on to state that little analysis of the AAFC’s research portfolio was being done plus the department had not identified what human resources, equipment, facilities and financial resources would be needed for its new Science and Innovation Strategy, launched about four years ago.

I’ll be honest – none of this comes as a big surprise to me. Transparency of research findings has never been a strong point of AAFC scientists. The odd time I hear of a new technology or new finding developed or discovered by an AAFC researcher. About once every month or so, I receive a press release highlighting three or four research briefs from work being done by the ministry across the country. And every winter during horticultural organization annual meetings, I might hear the odd presentation on an AAFC research project being funded, in part, by growers. But, for the most part, all I hear from federal researchers is silence.

Don’t get me wrong – I know the scientists at AAFC research centres across Canada are busy working on projects aimed at improving agriculture for Canadian farmers. I know they do a good job with the limited resources they have. It’s just that communicating their findings isn’t a top skill set for them. And the limited number of communication specialists they have within the research branch isn’t enough to get the good news out.

Contrast this with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research branch, the Agricultural Research Service. Each month, the ARS circulates a research magazine highlighting at least 11 or 12 research projects their scientists are working on or have concluded. Each day, at least one press release is distributed highlighting research findings. Farmers and other taxpayers in the U.S. have no doubt what work is being conducted on their behalf by agriculture scientists. The same cannot be said for their Canadian counterparts.

According to Fraser’s Spring 2010 report, the AAFC officials agree with her findings.

“The department is an internationally recognized knowledge-based organization that relies on the success of its scientists to generate benefits for the sector. It is important to communicate these successes,” officials respond in the report, adding they hope to “step up” a new communication strategy for the department by April 2010.

“The creation of a new regional research users’ forum will accelerate the dissemination of research results.”

Communication issues aren’t the only problems facing the AAFC. According to Fraser’s report, the last times the department’s physical capital assets, such as buildings and equipment, were assessed in 2005, “the condition of the majority of buildings was rated as poor (26 per cent) or average (45 per cent) rather than good or excellent.” As well, 71 per cent of the AAFC’s laboratory and agricultural equipment “has exceeded its service life.”

According to Liberal federal agricultural critic Wayne Easter, “incompetence and a complete lack of leadership” has resulted in the problems.

“He (Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz) is running his department into the ground,” said Easter. “He has offered no direction, no focus and no accountability for the way money is spent and the result is … laboratories and other research facilities falling apart and targets not being met.”

Recently, the National Post has been running a series of opinion pieces called The Chopping Block. In the series, columnists “hunt down and propose elimination of at least $20-billion in existing structural spending by 2014.” In the February 1, 2010, opinion piece, Terence Corcoran suggested cutting 50 per cent of the AAFC’s transfer spending and slicing the department’s operating costs by another 50 per cent, resulting in a savings of $1 billion.

Based on Fraser’s findings, those hypothetical cuts just might be to the AAFC’s jugular.


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