The huge federal funding announcement at the University of Guelph in September, for a seven-year, $77-million initiative called Food From Thought: Agricultural Systems for a Healthy Planet, is being heralded as a turning point in Canada for the next agricultural revolution – the digital revolution – which will be driven significantly by the coming together of big data and modern farming.
In fact, the university’s scientific lead for the project, Guelph Food Institute director Prof. Evan Fraser, says Food From Thought stands to make Guelph the Silicon Valley of agriculture and food.
The project builds on some assets that are uniquely the University of Guelph’s, and have given it an established platform on which to nurture such an agricultural revolution.
The first asset is the partnership between the university and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), a formal arrangement that seizes on the historic connection between the two.
The ministry dedicates millions of dollars every year -- $54 million in 2015-16 -- to the partnership, to fund agriculture and food research and development, laboratory services and training and education at the University of Guelph. The partnership also supports the province’s largest network of research stations, dedicated to livestock and field crop development, managed by the university for its researchers’ use.
In 2017, the partnership will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Independent impact studies have shown it generates more than $1 billion a year in economic activity in Ontario. The stability it gives the agriculture and food sector in Ontario helped make the pursuit of Food From Thought possible.
And so did newer assets. One that comes immediately to mind – and one that is an intrinsic part of Food From Thought -- is the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO), at whose headquarters the project’s announcement was made.
BIO is home to a game-changing technology called DNA barcoding, sometimes referred to as the “Barcode of Life.” DNA barcoding uses a very short piece of DNA to accurately identify a species, similar to how a supermarket scanner uses the black stripes of the Universal Product Code.
In agriculture and food, DNA barcoding has several applications. In the field, it can lead to accurate pest identification, which is crucial for farmers trying to figure out how to protect their crops and livestock from insects, bacteria and fungi. Off the farm, it can help guarantee the authenticity of Canadian exports. It can also identify problems such as pathogens or toxins earlier, and allow faster and better responses to food safety threats, protecting consumers and exporters.
The huge amounts of data being generated by BIO and other activities on campus have prompted Guelph researchers to connect with those who have supercomputing capacity, and what’s called “big data” expertise. Guelph entered this field early – and uniquely, for its biological applications -- through its involvement with a supercomputing network called the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network (SHARNET), in which Canadian universities share and join their computing capacity.
Building on that foundation, Food From Thought has attracted IBM Canada as a key industry partner. Its role will include tools and training for data analytics, plus securing cloud-based storage for the incredible amount of information gathered through supercomputing, and from precision agriculture technology that has already started appearing on farms. Scientific director Fraser says big data “will improve the understanding of the complex interplay between farming practices, the genetic potential of our crops and livestock, and the environment.”
So now, through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund that funded Food For Thought, Guelph has a new injection of resources to support graduate students, outreach and of course a whole array of research activity.
Aggies and non-aggies can rally around this initiative with equal enthusiasm. This is our country’s entry into the agricultural digital revolution.