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Okanagan: Food researchers warn of impact from climate change and funding cuts

Researcher Norm Looney (front) suggests the Okanagan could look considerably more like Italy; thanks to climate change the region could now grow olives. - Jennifer Smith
Researcher Norm Looney (front) suggests the Okanagan could look considerably more like Italy; thanks to climate change the region could now grow olives.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

Canada’s willingness to fund farm research may need to shift as breadbasket food producing regions like the Okanagan face water shortages and climbing temperatures in years to come.

Those attending the second lecture to mark this year’s 100th anniversary of the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre heard money is scarce around the federal facility these days, just as water may be when critical ice fields dry up.

“The water in the Okanagan is snow pack, so if things change, water supply could change,” said Gerry Neilsen, a soil fertility and plant nutritionist who spoke on the future of agriculture and agricultural research in the area.

New pests might arrive with a warmer climate, as evidenced by the mountain pine beetle episode, and crops may morph to accommodate changing needs. It’s already possible to grow olives, persimmons and kiwis here, for example.

“There are opportunities with climate change. They’re not necessarily things we want to think about, but those are the realities we’re going to have to discuss,” said Norm Looney, who highlighted the accomplishments of the station.

Over the years, Pacific Agri-Food scientists developed a wide swath of fruits and technologies to make both the tree fruit and wine industries key economic drivers in the Okanagan, he said. From opalescent apple juice to fruit leather, advances in drip irrigation to understanding how elements like calcium factor into plant growth, the work of the scientific team has been virtually as critical as growers' contributions.

Times are nonetheless tough for the scientists, as the type of long-term, science-for-science-sake research that’s cultivated agriculture in the valley is slowly being eroded.

“Canada and the United States and Western Europe are all kind of together in this model of putting agriculture down and it’s because it’s not a problem. Food shortages are not a major issue compared to other areas where the government could be spending money,” said Looney.

Currently faced with short-term funding commitments like the five-year Growing Forward grants, not to mention a whittling of researchers to half the scientists the station had in its heyday, the associate director of research, development and technology, Kenna MacKenzie, said researchers are adjusting to a new reality.

The relationship the research station forged with industry is extremely strong, she noted, but the shift in priorities for public funds now sees the dollars go straight into industry-driven initiatives first—and that's not the only additional draw.

“The Growing Forward program has put more money into agricultural research but it’s not going here; it’s going elsewhere, like the universities,” she said.

Both she and Neilsen said the young people universities attract bring the enthusiasm science desperately needs to evolve, but at a sacrifice to the long-term funding and commitment to projects. A university, Neilsen pointed out, is focused more on training people into positions and this comes at a cost to continuity as the masters and doctorate students pursuing a given research topic step away upon graduation.

Looney noted many of the station’s most successful projects were an evolution that took 30 or 40 years, with sporadic achievements along the way.

“It seems that the more developed a culture is, the less agriculture seems to get the attention it deserves,” he said.

This is in stark contrast to China, Japan and even France, where agricultural research is given top priority, he has noticed.

With both farmers and researchers aging, the researchers suggested that Canada may very well face great difficulty keeping the stream of achievements rolling in years to come, which could cost farmers and consumers.

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