It's Time to Follow Strong Words on Science with Action at the Central Experimental Farm
It has been a good month for public science in Canada.
Last Tuesday’s budget laid the groundwork for a reinvigorated engagement with research across the federal government. In particular, the budget highlighted the role of agricultural science in providing food security for Canadians, in keeping Canadian farmers competitive internationally, and as a key asset in the fight against climate change.
Last Monday, Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay spoke passionately about Canada’s federal scientists when he appeared before the House of Commons Agriculture Committee. MacAulay celebrated ongoing research in the context of 130-year long history of public research and innovation in support of Canada’s farmers and agri-food industry. MacAulay hinted at the big ticket items later unveiled in the budget: genomics research, herbarium digitization, and laboratory renovations.
The Liberal government’s commitment to science is not cheap; however, it has an opportunity to take strong action to support public science without adding another dollar to the burgeoning deficit: by protecting the Central Experimental Farm.
The Central Experimental Farm, founded in 1886 to support expanding settlement on the prairies, is the federal government’s oldest agricultural research station. Today it is eyed by developers and is facing a number of threats including from the Ottawa Hospital, which is seeking 60 acres of research fields for a new super-hospital.
In November 2014, former Conservative Minister John Baird announced that 60 acres of the Farm would be leased to the Ottawa Hospital to support its construction projects. This announcement came over six years after the government rejected the Hospital’s first bid for research fields. Everyone was taken off guard. Not even the scientists, whose research includes internationally significant decades long climate research, were consulted.
The Experimental Farm was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1998 after 140 acres were sold for suburban development. Although there was hope the designation would protect the Experimental Farm from further encroachment, Canada is the only G7 nation that does not legislatively protect its national historic sites.
Nonetheless, Agriculture Canada established the Central Experimental Farm Advisory Council in 1998 and completed a long-term management plan to provide predictability for the Farm’s future. The plan forbade further development and by adopting a reinvigorated research mandate, laid out plans to intensify scientific research from plant breeding to urban agriculture. Neither the Advisory Council nor the management plan were consulted in 2014.
Catherine McKenna, local Member of Parliament and Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, is investigating the 2014 deal and is concerned about the lack of paperwork left by Baird. Documents obtained through access of information legislation show that neither National Capital Commission staff, who Baird directed to facilitate negotiations between Agriculture Canada and the Hospital, nor a consultant hired by Agriculture Canada thought the Hospital made an adequate case for the land. A freedom of information request uncovered that the Hospital relied on a preliminary 2007 site assessment document to justify its choice.
The transfer of 60 acres of research fields represents the worst of the previous Conservative government: undermining science, eschewing public consultation, and devaluing Canada’s history. While the Hospital is reassessing four possible sites, three are at the CEF, including two configurations of the original site.
Given the strong support for public science expressed both in the budget and by Minister MacAulay, the Trudeau government has an opportunity to follow up their words with action by taking the Farm off the table for all development. Protecting the Central Experimental Farm would not add a dollar to the deficit and would reinforce the government’s commitment to science.