Agriculture Needs a Hybrid Think Tank

Posted in: Global Ag     

0914 Agriculture Needs A Hybrid Think Tank Main

One of Canada’s top ag think tanks recently closed its doors. 

In its place, does the industry need a more activist approach — a focussed organization that merges policy research with advocacy to defend agriculture?

In the wide world of research, there is a subset of specialized experts and analysts who focus on a specific industry, identifying and analyzing trends from a broad perspective, and provide advice and recommendations to policymakers. 

Commonly referred to as think tanks, these institutions ensure that government agencies and decision makers have access to objective, high-quality research that will help them set policy that benefits the industry as a whole. Think tanks can wield considerable influence. Some government policies can be traced back to a recommendation originating from a think tank’s report, while others reflect a seed planted by a think tank’s analysis. 

Canada had two such respected think tanks - now it has only one, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI). The ag industry lost the George Morris Centre (GMC), which was recently wound down, with the remaining research functions folded into the University of Guelph.

its own definition, CAPI is involved with ‘systems thinking’ that covers all aspects of the agriculture and food supply chain. It is funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, along with project-specific donations from ag industry stakeholders. It’s involved in a broad cross section of ag issues, from food processing to grain marketing, while leaving the scientific agronomic research to universities. 

The GMC was also involved in systems analysis, but its main focus was economic and market research for commercial agriculture. It closed its doors in July. Some of its services were folded into the University of Guelph; most were left to other Canadian university ag faculties, many of which don’t take a national perspective or make policy recommendations. 

It’s not like there are no other ag think tanks in Canada, but what remains is a disparate, if not somewhat bewildering cluster of overlapping advisory councils, roundtables, agencies, boards and other entities that review various ag issues and send reports to corresponding governing bodies. Many conduct policy research; all provide copious advice to governments, sector industry groups, producer organizations and the media. Some are highly specific, focusing on a certain sector or issue within the ag industry, but most do a lot of ‘thinking’ about issues and what should be done to resolve them. 

Then, there are the commodity groups, many of which have spent millions protecting and promoting their sectors — sometimes in direct competition to each other. They all engage in policy issues and political lobbying to some extent. 

Indeed, the public perception of agriculture is a never-ending anxiety for many producer groups. In Alberta, some major ag-related groups and suppliers created an entity, Ag for Life, to promote the public image of the industry. 

There is nothing wrong with this approach. The problem, however — and it’s not an insignificant one — is that it dilutes the agriculture message to governments, the media and the public at large. 

The industry benefits from the policy research conducted by these entities. The problem is that most avoid addressing the socio-economic and political aspects of many agriculture issues. But the fact is, most issues of the day have a political or sociological aspect to them. Genetic modification, animal welfare, intensive agriculture, supply management, pesticides, and soil, air and water quality are just a few examples. 

When those topics hit the headlines, there is often little or no economic rationalization to back speculation or allegations. And when traditional think tanks enter the discussion with their research, they often stay away from the social and public-perception ramifications surrounding the topic. 

That’s why Canada needs a more hybrid type of national policy institute; one that includes objective research on the issues at hand, AND can play an advocacy role when politically charged issues hit the media.

This type of hybrid think tank could focus on activism — that is, take on the issue before it becomes a headline in the mainstream press — while also stepping in to provide the latest research and factual information pertaining to the issue. Case in point: An environmental lobby group attacks farmers for using pesticides.

Farm chemical companies defend the allegations, but may be discounted for simply protecting their bottom line. In the end, nothing is resolved. Agriculture as a whole — and consumers both in Canada and around the world — enjoy certain benefits from producers having access to pesticides and herbicides. Discretion and good agronomics are always needed, but an ag think tank that could explain the issue from a broad perspective could provide a great benefit both in terms of advocacy and public education.

Such an organization could take on established perspectives and entrenched attitudes. A good example was the CAPI beef-marketing study that was used to develop the Strawman initiative that challenged the beef industry to get its act together. This was an enlightening and politically charged process that inspired many cattle producers.

Some policy institutes claim to be independent and non-partisan, which can serve to strengthen their credibility. However, many agriculture issues by their very nature are political and controversial and should be dealt with head-on with a pro-agriculture approach.

This industry needs a hybrid think tank that will fearlessly take on some of the heated political issues swirling around the agriculture industry today. Such an organization would be bold and take some risks — that alone would be a refreshing change that would emphasize support for producers.

Such a hybrid organization would serve as a lightning rod for the industry and producers alike. For example, although some may dispute the marketing process, supply management has served Canadian agriculture well and has, in effect, helped preserve many profitable family farms across Canada. Farmers are tired of being made out to be villains. Producers are looking for a champion that will support the industry with common-sense policies and clearly worded explanations that will help governments, media and the general public better understand the industry as a whole.

Indeed, the ag industry could learn something from environmental lobby groups about how to promote your cause! Many of these groups are masters at influencing governments and getting media and public attention. The ag industry has a winning message — it just needs to get better at communicating this message. What the industry needs is a champion — an activist agriculture think tank that will be front and centre with governments and the public, promoting the best interests of the industry as a whole.

About the Author
Will Verboven

Will Verboven is a regular agricultural columnist covering policy issues and industry trends in Canada and the U.S.

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