What agricultural research has been a “game-changer”? You decide.

To underline the value of research at universities in the province, the Council of Ontario Universities has launched a campaign inviting the public to vote on what it considers to be the top 50 “game changing” research breakthroughs in the past century.

Universities were asked to forward their suggestions to the council, which then chose which 50 to put forward. Game changing was the key. These were to be breakthroughs that made a big difference to people’s lives.

Eventually a winner will be picked, but there’s much more on the line than bragging rights.

Here’s why: provincial and federal governments support most of the research that takes place at universities in Canada. Governments get their money from taxpayers. And if taxpayers think they’re getting good value for their research dollar, they’re likely to go on supporting it.

When it comes to agriculture, in Ontario, the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs singularly supplies about half of $140-million-plus in research funding at the University of Guelph. It’s dubbed Canada’s Food University and it’s one of Canada’s most research-intensive universities of any type.

Farming in Ontario – and indeed, all of Canada – counts significantly on research. It always has. In a hot-and-cold, four-season climate like ours, crop and livestock production plateaus without ongoing research to overcome challenges and seize on opportunities presented by variable climate, not to mention other factors such as pests and disease, as well as changing consumer trends and global influences.

And even though Ontario has a tradition of supporting agri-food research, it’s still heartening to see the provincial universities’ council’s recognition of agriculture in the 50 breakthroughs it chose to feature.

For example, the Yukon Gold potato, developed in 1966 in potato breeder Gary Johnston’s garden on Division St. in Guelph (then further developed by him at the university), is an early leader in the voting.

Johnston created it to appeal to new Canadians who were accustomed to potatoes that weren’t white-fleshed. It turned out that it tasted great too, and it went on to become a household staple. In fact, it was served in the White House by former President Bill Clinton’s staff, which mistakenly believed it was developed in the USA. The Yukon Gold is the focus of many of the media stories I’ve seen about the research results campaign, as reporters count on its familiarity to draw attention to their story.

Lesser known to the public but vitally important to the cattle industry was the development in 1998 at Guelph of a vaccine against shipping fever in cattle. It became the foundation for all vaccines against this disease and helped establish a culture at the university supportive of livestock vaccine development and natural disease resistance.

At about the same time as the shipping fever development, Prof. Bruce Holub was breaking ground by pointing out to consumers and fast-food manufacturers that something called trans fats had a significant negative impact on human health. They not only raised your bad cholesterol, they also lowered your good cholesterol. When manufacturers used them (because they were solidified and easy to handle), even the most wholesome commodities, the best food farmers could produce, turned nasty.

Fortunately, thanks to Holub’s work and his very vocal opposition to industry using trans fats, they’ve been virtually eliminated from supermarket shelves.

And most lately, about 12 years ago, Prof. Paul Hebert developed a technology called DNA barcoding that is continuing to gain traction for its ground-breaking attributes. With CSI-like precision, he can use DNA barcoding for such agricultural purposes as determining food fraud and identifying unknown insects and pests. An international DNA barcoding conference is coming to Guelph this summer, at which time global experts will discuss the advances they’ve made – all thanks to Hebert’s initial work.

The competition in this game-changing research contest is tough, such as the development of infant cereal (pablum), radiation treatment for cancer and the discovery of the gene that causes cystic fibrosis.

Really, there are no losers. Canadians win all around by supporting research and the benefits derived from its many outcomes.

There’s lots of time to pick a winner. Voting will continue through the summer at fairs and public events, as the 50 game-changers go on the road with the council’s Research Matters’ Curiosity Shop. The public’s top five favourites will be announced in the fall, and contest participants will be eligible for a draw.

But why wait? Why not cast a vote now for agriculture, and use the opportunity to educate consumers on what a research-intensive industry agriculture is? Consumers need to know research creates new products and technologies, and farmers need governments to know they value research, too. Voting for an important agricultural development from an Ontario university is one way to do it…as is simply saying thanks to your local MP or MPP.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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