Agriculture and Technology: They Need Each Other to Feed the World

Recent research findings from the new Canadian Centre for Food Integrity could leave farmers scratching their heads. It showed that the public highly regards farmers, which is great. But it also showed 90 per cent say they know little or nothing about farming. Fortunately, 60 per cent said they want to know more.

“I think it’s time to bridge the gaps and give Canadians the credible information and the connections to their food they are looking for,” says Crystal Mackay, CEO of Farm and Food Care Canada, the centre’s parent organization.

She’s absolutely right. The danger in people knowing nothing about farming, despite their good intentions to learn more, is that some of those people are likely to include decision makers — people making decisions about policy that directly affects farmers. How can they make informed decisions about farming when they admit to knowing nothing about it?

That’s why putting credible information in front of them is more important than ever.

Those who sincerely want to learn more about agriculture need to understand the role technology plays in food production…and further, how agriculture is not only benefitting from technology, but how society is benefitting from agriculture using technology.

This hit home last week when the University of Guelph presented a showcase of technology it has been supporting through a Dragon’s Den-like program called Gryphons’ LAAIR. The Gryphon is the U of G mascot; LAAIR is an acronym for Leading to Accelerated Adoption of Innovative Research.

The program started in 2014, with support from the provincial and federal governments, as a way to help Guelph researchers get new developments out of their labs and into the marketplace. They make a pitch and a panel of experts passes judgement on whether it will receive funding.

Few such programs exist anywhere in agriculture. The sector has been good at creating a pipeline for the likes of new plant varieties to get from the field to commercial plant breeders. But when it comes to innovative products and technologies, where a financial boost is needed to get the innovation over the hump – creation of a prototype, perhaps – the money just isn’t there.

And that, not a lack of ingenuity or anti-technology activism, is one of the biggest obstacles holding back technological progress in agriculture.

The Gryphons’ LAAIR showcase offered a glimpse of what’s possible with a little extra push. It also shows how agriculture and the prospect of feeding a growing population is becoming intriguing to a wide array of researchers with what would be widely viewed as non-traditional interests.

For example, showcase participants heard of a nanoparticle extracted from sweet corn that has a special attraction with water. Among its many uses, it produces one of the best moisturizers anywhere, and can also be used as a food stabilizer and endurance drink additive. It’s being developed and commercialized by a start-up company called Mirexus; plans to build a factory in 2017 are underway.

Another example was high immune response technology developed at the University for dairy animals that is now being adapted for beef animals too, and is likely to include other species in time. It’s a patented testing method that provides a means to identify cattle with inherently superior immunity and enhanced disease resistance. Semex licenced the technology from the university in 2012, and sold more than $18 million in semen from high-immune response bulls in two years.

And yet another technology was the creation of a beneficial microbial ecosystem for pigs. This is based on the “Robogut” technology developed for humans, to help them with their microflora gut environment when theirs has been destroyed or compromised. In pigs, field tests start this summer with microbe supplements that augment those in the animals’ gut.

The showcase concluded with a presentation of the first university-wide Innovation of the Year awards, to co-winners Amar Mohanty and Mario Monteiro. Monteiro, a chemist, has become renowned as one of the world’s top vaccine inventors, most lately for he and his research team’s vaccine against the troublesome bacterium C.difficile, which has gone into human trials in the US.

On the agricultural side, Mohanty and his team at the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC) developed a 100 per cent-compostable resin, used to help produce single-serve soft coffee pods. They gained a huge vote of confidence when Galen Weston sung their praises and that of the University of Guelph when he wrapped up a Loblaw’s shareholders’ meeting recently, with an enthusiastic nod to the researchers’ inventiveness and the product’s promise.

After the showcase, researchers and government, university and industry officials gathers on campus to recognize Guelph had joined other leading universities in the province, IBM Canada and the Ontario Centres of Excellence in becoming part of the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Forum.

The forum provides access to some of Canada’s most powerful advanced computing and big data platforms, which is key to the University’s goal of creating a huge precision agriculture program. This requires extraordinary technology and connectivity to collect and use the reams of data available now from farmers’ fields through use of infrared scanning and drones, for more precise fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications.

There’s no question agricultural technology is advancing, and humans will ultimately be the beneficiaries. Like the rest of the world, technology and agriculture are getting more complex, complicated and interdependent. Feeding the world depends on them both succeeding, with research, funding and societal support.

 

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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