For better or worse, private funding dominates Canadian ag research (and is any of this starting to sound familiar?) by Lloyd O'Connell

Encouraged by the Canadian Government through legislative change and other incentives, large multinational companies became involved in plant genetics research during the 1990s

HISTORICALLY THE majority of agricultural research in Canada was carried out in public institutions. But as the Western Grains Research Foundation of Canada points out, intellectual property rights (IPR) have recently been established for many of the products of agricultural research. Moreover, government funding of research has also changed.

These changes have increased the incentive for private research, which in turn has resulted in a dramatic increase in the private funding of crop research in Canada. Some people have therefore concluded that the establishment of property rights for products of agricultural research has been so successful that there is no longer a role for public investment in crop research.

Others have raised concerns about potential adverse effects from the privatisation of agricultural research such as increased costs, reduced competition and the 'freedom to operate' of breeding firms.

Salivating over the Australian agricultural research model

Like a farmer looking over the fence at a wheat field better than his own, many Canadian grain researchers see the producer levy for grain research in Australia and salivate. "To some degree we look at the Australian [GRDC] program with considerable envy, since they 're talking about a check-off [i.e. a levy] that's about 10 times the level of the one operated in Canada." says Dr Jim Bole, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

Funding for grain breeding research is based on a producer check-off of AUD$0.22 per tonne - which, for wheat, is over $3 million annually.

If, as some predict, Australia begins to supersede Canada's variety development system with superior varieties, then the GRDC model is sure to come under even closer scrutiny for aspects that can be applied to Canada's system.

The private biotechnology development years

The 1990s in Canada saw a continued shift in breeding research from public to private institutions. Private companies dominated breeding research funding and influenced research direction. Large agrochemical companies became involved in the plant genetic industry.

The introduction of Plant Breeder's Rights (PBR) legislation in 1990 catalysed this institutional shift. This legislation particularly affected canola research. Breeders in Canada applied for protection of their intellectual property through PBR and royalties were charged on the sale of varieties.

Hybrid technologies necessitated the purchase of new seed each year. In the case of herbicide-tolerant canolas, e.g. Liberty, the returns from investment could be captured through profits from the herbicide.

All of these conditions helped to ensure that private companies could make a return on their investment. At this time the public breeding research sector undertook a major policy change.

Universities and government were given the mandate to cooperate rather than compete with private institutions and companies.

One of the most significant programs has been the Matching Investment Initiative whereby the AAFC provides research resources for up to 50 per cent of the cost of a project when matched by private firm and industry group investments.