Category Archives: economics

Canada’s barley crop needs a little help to adapt to climate change

“Building better barley” is the title for a Dec. 12, 2012 news release from the University of Alberta (by Bev Betkowski) on EurekAlert. They might have wanted to add the phrase “in the face of climate change” but that ruins the alliteration. From the news release,

As one of the top 10 barley producers in the world, Canada faces a problem of adapting to the ‘new normal’ of a warmer, drier climate.

The 2012 growing season was considered an average year on the Canadian Prairies, “but we still had a summer water deficit, and it is that type of condition we are trying to work with,” said Scott Chang, a professor of soil science in the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources in Edmonton, Canada.

The Dec. 5, 2012 article (which originated the news release) by Betkowski for the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta provides more detail about the why and the how,

Chang began teaming up with fellow crop scientist Anthony Anyia of Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures in 2006, following a severe drought in 2002 that dropped average crop yield in Alberta by about half. They are exploring the genetic makeup of barley and how the grain crop—a Canadian staple used for beer malt and animal feed—can be made more efficient in its water use and more productive. One of their latest studies, published in the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics, explores how to increase yield in barley crops while using less water.

…The latest study was led by lead author Jing Chen, a former PhD student in Chang and Anyia’s lab. The group planted and harvested two common types of barley plants in test plots around Alberta, then analyzed the plants for genetic traits and other factors such as height, days to maturity and yield.

By studying the carbon isotope compositions of barley plants and their relationship with water-use efficiency, the researchers developed tools that plant breeders can use to improve selection efficiency for more water-efficient varieties. The latest findings stem from an ongoing collaboration that is ultimately aimed at bringing farmers a more stable breed of the plant that has less reliance on water and is less vulnerable to climate change.

Coincidentally (or not), the Canadian federal government in the person of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, within a week of the story and news release by Betkowski, congratulates itself for previous funding and new programs in two separate news releases.

The Harper Government Supports Canadian Barley Industry news release of Dec. 7, 2012 had this comment for the Alberta Barley Commission’s annual general meeting in Banff,

“As the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act approaches, western Canadian grain farmers are already enjoying the economic potential of an open market,” said Minister Ritz. “I would like to thank the Alberta Barley Commission for its long-standing leadership in support of marketing freedom, innovation and a strong future for barley producers.”

Canadian barley, known around the world for its high quality and superior characteristics, generated over $270 million in exports last year—a figure expected to continue to grow with the new marketing freedom options. The Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, which received Royal Assent on December 15, 2011, allows anyone to buy and sell wheat and barley. By unleashing the sector’s economic potential and entrepreneurial energy, the open grain market continues to usher in a new era of innovation and growth for Western Canada’s grain industry, helping attract investment, encourage innovation, create value-added jobs and build a stronger economy.

Additionally, the Harper government recently announced an AgriMarketing investment of more than $525,000 to enable the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, the Malting Industry Association of Canada, and the Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute to increase their competitiveness in new and existing markets through innovative marketing and communications and through the development of a Canadian Malt Barley Brand. [emphasis mine] Product testing and evaluations will also be done on new malting barley varieties, the current year’s harvest and cargo shipments to highlight the attributes of the current Canadian crop for international customers.

The Harper government’s long-term strategy to strengthen and modernize the barley industry includes renewing the mandate of the Crop Logistics Working Group, to improve the performance of the supply chain for barley and all crops, and to ensure that the agricultural sector can reap the rewards of a dynamic and growing global marketplace.

On the same day in Calgary, the Harper Government Announces Federal Growing Forward 2 Programs news release of Dec. 7, 2012 proclaims new programs and, presumably, there will be additional funding at some point,

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz today unveiled three new federal programs under Canada’s new agricultural policy framework Growing Forward 2 that will streamline investments in the agriculture and agri-food sector. The new programs will focus on strategic initiatives in innovation, competitiveness and market development to further strengthen the sector’s capacity to grow and prosper.

“These new Growing Forward 2 programs will build on the success of existing programs to provide more streamlined support to the sector to help it remain a world leader in agricultural innovation and trade,” said Minister Ritz. “We are making sure farmers and the entire sector have the tools and resources they need to stay ahead of the ever-changing demands of consumers.”

Three new federal programs will come into effect on April 1, 2013:

  • The AgriInnovation Program will focus on investments to expand the sector’s capacity to develop and commercialize new products and technologies.
  • The AgriMarketing Program will help industry improve its capacity to adopt assurance systems, such as food safety and traceability, to meet consumer and market demands. It will also support industry in maintaining and seizing new markets for their products through branding and promotional activities.
  • The AgriCompetitiveness Program will target investments to help strengthen the agriculture and agri-food industry’s capacity to adapt and be profitable in domestic and global markets.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is proactively providing information to farmers and the industry so that they are familiar with the kind of support that will be available and so they may plan their applications well in advance. The AgriInnovation Program will begin accepting applications immediately, while AgriMarketing and AgriCompetitiveness will begin accepting applications early in the new year.

Growing Forward 2 represents a $3 billion investment over five years in strategic initiatives for innovation, competitiveness and market development, in addition to a full and comprehensive suite of business risk management programs that will continue to help farmers withstand severe market volatility and disasters. Investments in the three priority areas are critical to facilitating the sector’s expansion and leveraging of provincial-territorial and industry investments to increase productivity, growth and jobs.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for those who do not know, is from the province of Alberta.

This is an interesting example, whether the announcements are coincidental or not, of the relationship between research taking place in the universities, government and its programmes, and the international marketplace. For those interested in Chang’s research, here’s the citation for the paper from his webpage,

Chen, J., Chang, S.X. and Anya, A.O. 2012. Quantitative trait loci for water-use efficiency in barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) measured by carbon isotope discrimination under rain-fed conditions on the Canadian Prairies, Theoretical and Applied Genetics 125: 71–90.

Springer, publisher for the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics, is offering a free preview during the month of December 2012 so you can view the article or any other one in the journal ’til Dec. 31, 2012.

Attracting creatives and economic opportunities

The Canadian 2012 federal budget was presented today (Mar.29.12) and so a discussion about creativity and economic opportunities seems à propos. I’ll start with Amsterdam (Holland/The Netherlands) and THNK. Neal Ungerleider, in his March 27, 2012 article titled, The THNK Tank: Why Amsterdam Wants Your (Creative) Brains, for Fast Company notes,

Amsterdam is embarking on an ambitious experiment to attract foreign creatives: An invite-only, public/private-funded school and accelerator for international creative minds, leaders, and entrepreneurs. THNK: The Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership opened several weeks ago with an initial class of 30 drawn from across Europe, the United States, China, India, Israel, Mauritius, and South Africa. Classes and mentoring at THNK are held both in Amsterdam–in a home base inside a converted gasworks–and via telecommuting once participants return to their home countries.

For Amsterdam, THNK is a slick business development project that simultaneously doubles as soft diplomacy. The thinkers and doers who will be joining in THNK’s activities will be connected with local entrepreneurs, artists, and firms–whom the city is doubtlessly hoping will be back in the future.

The partnership behind this initiative includes the Dutch federal government, the province of Noord-Holland, Stadsregio Amsterdam (a regional conglomeration of 16 municipalities in what is dubbed as the ‘Amsterdam region’, The Netherlands Chamber of Commerce, and I amsterdam.

These organizations certainly seem to be modeling leadership. Here’s more about their initiative, from the About THNK page,

Of course the world is changing. That’s what it’s done since time began. Evolution is natural. Sometimes it happens slowly. And sometimes it rocks the world like a fiery volcano, suddenly transforming entire landscapes.

Our world has reached that point now. Social inequality, our love/hate relationship with technology, dwindling resources, climate change, the collapse of financial institutions…

Organizations of all types, shapes and sizes are struggling with this new reality. Some are so involved in daily operations – and keeping their heads above water – they are blind to the future. Others recognize the challenges around them, but lack vision.

THNK believes the answer is passionate, visionary and creative leadership.

Creative leadership according to THNK means: public, social and business worlds coming together to create and realize new and innovative solutions to major issues of societal relevance that will have great meaning and impact – either nationally or internationally.

This isn’t just about generating ideas. It’s also about making it happen.

About Amsterdam

Although our focus is international, THNK is firmly rooted in Amsterdam. We’ve made the Westergasfabriek our home. This 19th-century former gas factory has been transformed into one of the city’s most exciting cultural centers, with old industrial buildings now housing trendsetting cafes, cinema, festivals and other events. Not to mention the surrounding city parks – with everything from hidden waterways to bike paths reaching from the countryside to the heart of Amsterdam.

Thanks to its highly diverse culture – with more than 175 nationalities – and an inventive and tolerant mentality, Amsterdam has grown into an important international hub for creative thought and industry. The city’s unique DNA of creativity, tolerance, diversity, collaboration and trade is reflected in THNK’s highly pragmatic and open culture.

It’s not surprising that such diverse influences have brought forth such creativity. Three of our local scientists have been awarded Nobel prizes. Fashion designers Viktor & Rolf have wowed the world. Droog designer Marcel Wanders has changed the way we look at interior design. Architects such as Ben van Berkel are reshaping our skylines.

Amsterdam’s unique DNA of creativity, tolerance, diversity, collaboration and trade will be reflected in THNK’s highly pragmatic and open culture. Reaching beyond its borders, Amsterdam serves as a major gateway into continental Europe. With two major seaports within a 50-kilometer radius, strong international railroad connections and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol close by, you’re always close to anywhere in Europe and the world.

They do invite applications (perhaps the invite-only applications were a feature for the first cohort). You can get more information here or go here to apply immediately. The 18-month program costs  € 39,500 (approx. $52, 520 CAD) and there are periods when you are required to be in Amsterdam, so you may want to include some housing and travel costs as well.

Meanwhile in Vancouver (Canada), Simon Fraser University (SFU) is about to host BCreative 2012 from May 10 – 12, 2012. From the BCreactive 2012 conference/showcase About page,

… designed to bring together government, business, the creative sector, and researchers to stimulate thinking, policy, and action directed at developing a strategy and levering resources to further build the creative economy and to help British Columbia BC become a leader in the creative sector in the twenty-first century.

BCreative 2012 conference/showcase has four specific objectives:

  1. To make the case for the creative economy to have a commanding presence in government economic and cultural policy;
  2. To build bridges between the general business community and this new and dynamic business sector with distinctive infrastructure needs from which all British Columbians can benefit both socially and economically;
  3. To encourage information sharing among the creative sub-sectors and to sensitize the creative sector to the contribution of the creative economy to job creation and overall economic growth;
  4. To bring forward useful information, analysis, training, and research resources that can assist in building BC’s creative economy.

Speakers include the co-author of the two UN Creative Economy reports, Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg, creative cities theorist Charles Landry, Canada Council CEO Robert Sirman, representatives from creative cities: Berlin and Paris. Partners with Simon Fraser University in this enterprise include the BC Business Council and the Vancouver Board of Trade, with Tourism Vancouver helping behind the scenes.

There’s an early bird registration fee until March 31, 2012. You can find a copy of the schedule (presumably a draft) here.  I hope the participants will develop ideas as fresh and innovative as THNK.

BTW, I notice that Amsterdam’s THNK mentions scientists while the BCreative conference does not whether that omission reflects organizational difficulties or a blindspot is a mystery.

Scientists as thieves

The movies tend to portray scientists as naïve fools/hapless pawns or villains. There is a little bit of truth in these portrayals, at least for the villains, as Sarah Rose’s new book about Robert Fortune, For All the Tea in China, makes clear.

Previewed in an article by Jenara Nerenberg on Fast Company, the book lays out the means by which the British government got its hands on the tea plant and secret to producing to tea. From the article,

Sarah Rose is the author of For All the Tea in China, which tells the true story of how tea and industrial espionage fueled the great expansion of the British Empire and the East India Company in the 1800s. The book focuses on one central character, Robert Fortune, who was a scientist sent by the British government to literally steal the secret of tea production from China, plant the Chinese tea in Darjeeling, and thus make the British Empire less reliant on trade with the Chinese and more self-sufficient by harvesting its own tea in colonial India.

Rose, in response to a question about contemporary as opposed to 19th century industrial espionage had this to say (from the article),

The vast majority the microchips for computers in America are manufactured in China–including those for the U.S. military. This creates a ridiculously high risk of espionage. Those circuits are just too small for us to know how really bad it might be, but from what I understand from the defense and trade communities, it’s a top worry. Meanwhile, the US’s relationship with China is thoroughly interdependent, as was Britain’s in the 19th Century. China owns a lot of our debt, so it loans us the money to buy the stuff China needs to export as it manufactures its way out of the poverty cycle. The two countries don’t necessarily like each other, but they need each other. When each player is so suspicious, it multiplies the competitive advantages of espionage and secrecy.

Most of the article is about tea and Robert Fortune who apparently dressed up as a Chinese Mandarin and fought off pirates in his pursuit of the plant. The focus for the book is on an adventure story and I haven’t seen any mention yet of the ramifications this theft might have had on China’s (nor for that matter India’s) economy and subsequent history.

The Wikipedia essay on Robert Fortune offers a far less colourful story,

Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880) was a Scottish botanist and traveller best known for introducing tea plants from China to India.

While the essay goes on to mention his exploits and makes it clear that he obtained the tea plants illegally, it stops short of accusing the British government and Fortune of theft and industrial espionage.

If you’re interested in Rose’s book, there’s a video trailer where she describes the story,

There’s more at Rose’s website.

This all reminds me of a course about technology transfer taught by Pat Howard (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada). We spent a fair amount of time talking about agriculture and seeds which surprised me mightily as I expected to be talking about computers and stuff.

Amongst other tasty tidbits, Pat mentioned that the Dutch burned out islands they didn’t own so they could destroy specific species of plants and retain control of the trade in spices that grew in their own territories.