The province will provide some $343 million in funding for agri-food research over the next five years under a new agreement with the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance.
The organization is a joint initiative between the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the University of Guelph and the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario.
The funding announced at an event March 16 in Guelph will help the university achieve success beyond training the next generation of talent, said Malcolm Campbell, UofG’s vice-president of research.
“It’s important to remember, universities are not merely glorified high schools, they’re not merely people that are providing knowledge to people, they’re creating knowledge. And they’re creating innovations. They’re creating technologies….We need to future-proof by creating the knowledge that is going to help us create those technologies, create that innovation, that help de-risk our future,” Campbell said.
The number of projects the program funds each year varies, while selection is based on merit and how well the project fits with Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) priorities.
“Ontario is fueling research that protects plant, animal and human health, while expanding opportunities for new businesses and thousands of jobs in our province’s agri-food sector,” said Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris in a release following last week’s event.
Istvan Rajcan is a professor of plant agriculture and soybean researcher at the university whose research has been funded through the program. His work uses the plant’s genes to breed soybeans that are higher quality and more disease-resistant.
“So what we look at in our research program is to improve the new cultivars of soybeans for yield primarily because that’s what the farmers are paid for,” Rajcan said.
That’s different from what we normally think of when we hear the term GMO, Rajcan explained. While his research focuses on genes that are naturally occurring in soybeans, GMO research includes the addition of a gene that is not naturally found in the plant.
“So for example, the gene for resistance to glyphosate herbicide was isolated from a bacterium and then inserted into the soybean genome using the techniques of genetic modification that’s different – you’re bringing a foreign gene into the genetics of soybean and that’s considered genetically modified….That’s their market and we’re happily letting them do that job.” he added.
Along with working in a molecular lab, Rajcan and his team use three locations to grow crops to see how they react to different environments. That includes the Elora Research Station, the Woodstock Research Station and a farm near Stratford.
“We use several locations to assess their adaptation more widely, and that helps us decide what varieties will be grown, become new varieties and what genotypes will become new varieties in the future that farmers will want to grow,” Rajcan said.
Rajcan’s work has made a significant impact on the soybean market, Campbell said, noting about 50 per cent of all edible soybeans sold in Japan are grown in Canada.
“That is putting those varieties not only into the field, but onto consumers’ plates the world over. It gets made into tofu and into a variety of soybean products. That’s something as Canadians we should be immensely proud of – we’re not only feeding ourselves, but we’re providing a marketable product that feeds the world.”
The innovation alliance has 11 research priorities given to them by the ministry last August. Those include food safety, plant health, animal health, soil health, water quality, sustainable production, productive land capacity, competitiveness, product improvement, trade and sector growth, and strengthening rural communities.
Campbell said a lot more goes on behind the scenes in food production than consumers realize.
“We’re more aware of the latest version of the iPhone than we are of the latest version of the food that finds its way onto our plate that is more nutritious, more environmentally sustainable, that is fulfilling our nutritional needs while making sure that we’re addressing the challenging environmental times we find ourselves in.”