Needed: Free-flowing ag sector employment pipeline

Horticulture Lead for Eastern Canada Scott MacDonald speaks to growers about insects at the BASF Knowledge Harvest 2018 event in London, Ontario. (Photo via BASF)

A massive turnover in the agricultural workforce caused by retiring baby boomers means the employment pipeline needs to be flowing more freely than ever.

That’s the word from Scott MacDonald, insecticide marketing manager and horticulture lead for BASF. He says universities will be the key source for providing agriculture with new talent.

“They’ll make a big contribution by replacing the professionals who are leaving agriculture,” he says.

MacDonald spoke to media following BASF’s recent Knowledge Harvest outlook event in London, ON. He says among those stepping aside are experienced agricultural researchers, who are leaving at a “delicate and challenging time.”

Here’s why: Agriculture needs to feed more people with fewer resources, especially land. New ideas are needed to figure out how to do that.

Crop protection is key. MacDonald says we’re entering a period that will be marked by new restrictions on broad-spectrum, multi-foundation pesticides. Government, industry, and farmers have become acutely aware of resistance to certain chemistries, and are taking measures to deal with it.

An important approach to resistance is to offer producers new chemistries. However, the cost to develop, test, and bring them on stream is soaring. Some 20 years ago, it cost an estimated US$150 million to bring a new active ingredient into production. Now, it costs US$280 million.

Part of that increase is because due diligence has increased and standards have been raised. But so has the search for new classifications of crop protection chemistries to replace those that either through overuse, or because of time itself, are being rendered ineffective.

BASF’s insecticide marketing manager and horticulture lead, Scott MacDonald. (Photo supplied)

On the insecticide front, MacDonald, who is the past president of the Entomological Society of Ontario, says climate change has opened the door for invasive insects, such as emerald ash borer, fire ants, longhorn Asian beetle, multi-coloured Asian lady beetles, and soybean aphids that are popping up in fields where they previously did not exist. MacDonald says foliar spraying has increased 10 per cent in the last three years to try to deal with these new pests.

So while the ag industry needs graduates with the ability to develop new chemistries, it also requires those with an advanced understanding of taxonomy, to be able to identify new and emerging insect species, and to protect non-target insects.

“When you’re trying to integrate biological controls with chemicals, you need to know exactly what insects you’re dealing with,” says MacDonald. “We need to make sure we’re not killing insects’ natural predators and parasites.”

He says that’s where higher education institutions can contribute.

“Universities are great at developing diagnostic tools, understanding the biology of non-native pests and training professionals. We need more university students to realize agriculture is an incredibly interesting, innovative, complex system, and a noble profession.”

Help is on the way. As an example, part of the recently renewed $713-million, 10-year research and services partnership between the University of Guelph and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is dedicated to developing high quality personnel.

At the partnership’s renewal announcement last month, human health and nutritional sciences professor Alison Duncan, an expert in lentils and other legumes, pulses and oilseeds, noted the connection the research partnership fosters among agriculture, food and human health… and how students fit into the mix.

“The entire research process builds capacity in everyone involved, particularly students, who through experiential learning opportunities grow to understand the strong results of collaborative effort,” she said. “The students graduate, get jobs and contribute their expertise to building up the agri-food sector in Ontario.”

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