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Federal agency sows seeds for future plant experts

By TIM LOUGHEED | DEC 03 2007

Canadian universities graduate plenty of people who can deal with the intricacies of molecular biology and genetic manipulation, but few who understand the basic mechanics of defending the country’s plants, including crops and forests, from biological threats responsible for billions of dollars worth of damage every year. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency wants to fill this need by building links with universities to nurture the next generation of plant protection experts. The agency would like to see universities eventually establish certificate courses, graduate programs and even research positions dedicated to the complex regulatory issues surrounding plants and trees.

The CFIA’s formal interest in this prospect comes after several years of discussions about plant protection with representatives from parallel agencies in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The latter two countries have robust networks that apply academic, government and private resources to the management of invasive species. The Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management, for example, brings together university researchers and government administrators to invest the equivalent of almost $4 million Cdn a year in the control of unwanted plants, yielding total savings to agriculture in the range of $9 billion.

According to William Lanterman, executive director of the CFIA Science Strategies Directorate, Canada doesn’t have a coordinated effort of that kind. Nor, he says, do students in Canada have the same opportunities as their Australian counterparts to gain first-hand knowledge of basic agricultural challenges in plant protection or the international regulations designed to meet them.

“This is absolutely fundamental to the world we live in, the movement of plant material and making sure that it’s healthy,” he says. If Canada is to confront problems such as outbreaks of invasive organisms, Dr. Lanterman adds, it will need individuals who understand not only the biology of those organisms, but also the international treaties Canada has signed to oversee the handling of plant and animal species.

Hugh MacIsaac, who heads the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, says some faculty members are bringing these subjects into the curriculum at Windsor, as well as York and McGill universities. He says that he, too, would like to see a more proactive approach, with more resources put into preventing or monitoring problems rather than only to responding to outbreaks once they become serious.

Christine Tibelius, a senior program officer with the CFIA Invasive Alien Species Section, is working with Dr. Lanterman on a university-based initiative. Although she hasn’t yet consulted directly with any universities on what the agency could offer, she suggests that the interests and the benefits would be mutual. “We know that they’ve got expertise in teaching entomology and crop science and plant pathology,” she says. “What we’d like to see is a rounded curriculum that includes things like pest risk analysis, the regulatory system in Canada, the international plant health framework, and maybe some of the economic cost-benefit analysis. We need to have that expertise.”

For more information about this CFIA initiative, contact Christine Tibelius at tibeliusc@inspection.gc.ca.

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