Agri-Food Innovation Council emphasizes adoption of new technologies

Elsie Ross
May 4, 2022

While the agri-food industry welcomes the recently announced $100 million for net-zero emission agriculture, there needs to be a focus on its adoption, say those in the industry.

“To produce fantastic research and innovation is one thing; to actually get it in the hands of farmers is the other part of it,” Serge Buy, chief executive of the Agri-Food Innovation Council (AIC) told Research Money.

Canada also needs to streamline investments in agri-food research and innovation if it is to fully unlock the sector’s potential, seize global opportunities, and overcome key challenges, added Buy, who also chairs a steering committee calling for the creation of a national strategy for agri-food research and innovation. “You're looking at about 17 organizations that are providing funding in different ways to agri-food research and innovation — and none of them are co-ordinated.”

A national research strategy would ensure that the “large buckets of money for research are being applied in a co-ordinated fashion, driving towards central goals,” said Ian Affleck, vice-president, plant biotechnology for CropLife Canada.

“The danger with any of these excellent opportunities is that the money gets spread so thin and so light across the entire board, that it doesn't move any of these beneficial goals forward,” he said.  “How do we ensure that all of these things are talking to each other and that the funding is driving towards some critical goals that we can actually see?”

The 2022 federal budget provides $100 million over six years, starting in 2022-23, to the federal granting councils to support post-secondary research in developing technologies and crop varieties that will allow for net-zero emission agriculture.

“It [funding] does need to make sense for the agri-food sector, and we need to make sure that it has deliverables that can be adopted by the sector in the future,” said Buy.

Crop organizations, governments, and private companies are currently investing heavily in crop research, said Susie Miller, executive director of the Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Crops.  With the new money, “you have additional consideration for funding if the intent of the research work is to develop varieties that demonstrably reduce greenhouse gas emissions versus give a better yield, or better quality or disease resistance,” she said. “I think it's more of a kick-start — a little bonus and an additional incentive to focus on those particular traits, GHG.”

One area with a lot of potential would be plant breeding, said Affleck, referring to nitrogen-efficient wheat varieties that support no-till agriculture, with agronomic traits that improve efficiency and reduce inputs. He cited two other important areas of research: pest control, whether pesticides or biological, and beneficial agronomic practices that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Tracing it [research] through to commercialization and adoption is critical,” he said. At the inception of a project, it’s important that the researcher work with the grower community so that it understands its value, the researcher understands the need, and the farmer understands the value, according to Affleck.

“The opportunity for public-private partnerships is critical,” he said. “When public institutions can partner with private companies that have a history of commercialization that makes things so much easier to get that product out there in use.”

Adoption of research is also more complex than simply informing farmers about it, said Miller. “It is about integrating it into new technology and into new practices and into new advice and into the business of agriculture,” she said.

In addition to farmers, there are input suppliers, transporters and buyers. “So it really needs to have a pathway to adoption.”

And sometimes that pathway is through a commercial service or goods provider, rather than going directly to the farmer. Miller offers the example of no-till agriculture, which she suggests would not have been adopted without the manufacturers of air-seeding equipment, which made planting faster and more efficient by eliminating the need to till soil.

In that light, she suggested, it would be useful to conduct a sector-wide analysis of such factors that may be limiting the adoption of agricultural research. “We talk about it a lot, but I'm not sure that anybody is really looking at it.”

According to Amy Lemay, a research fellow and adjunct professor at Brock University, however, the Canadian agri-food industry must be innovative and also agnostic about promoting new technologies. Lemay is part of a team examining the barriers and drivers of adoption of automation and robotics technologies in the Ontario agri-food sector.

“We definitely need to support funding of the research and development of agri- innovations,” she argued. “Then we have to let farmers make those decisions and support them in whatever agri-innovations they want to adopt into their operations.”

Lemay said that while a number of farmers told her that robotics technology would not suit their operation, they were doing some really innovative things such as growing niche crops that had huge margins for them that very few people were growing.

“That's an innovation itself,” she said, even though there might be little research available to support the production practices to grow that crop sustainably. No less innovative, she added, are integrated pest management practices based on novel technologies that move away from a reliance on synthetic pesticides.

Affleck cited a need for a responsive regulatory system in Canada, which encourages not only scientific research, but also the commercialization.

“That's an area where Canada has fallen behind,” he said. “We have all the intellectual capacity to develop the products and then we end up commercializing them in other countries and only getting them in Canada years later, and what an opportunity for Canada to be first.”

In a letter to Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food (AFFC), the AIC steering committee said that all points along the agri-food innovation process, from primary research to adoption, should be reviewed to ensure alignment with priorities and to address priority gaps.

“With limited resources, it is crucial that efforts to strengthen the agri-food research and innovation ecosystem are efficient, non-duplicative and able to achieve tangible results,” the letter stated.

The committee includes representatives of producer groups, farmers, academia and research funders. It asked AFFC to take a leadership role, in partnership with industry, in the development of a national strategy that would involve close collaboration with the provinces and territories, academia and others.

“We want an open and transparent process where all the players are involved to make sure that we have a formal discussion and good goals are there,” said Buy. Nor does that process need to be long, he added, suggesting the work could take about a year.

Asked to comment on the need for a national innovation strategy, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada did not directly respond. In an e-mail, the department said that development of the next federal-provincial-territorial agricultural policy framework is well underway.

“Science and innovation is a key element of the framework, and governments are developing approaches to address key challenges in the sector,” said the department’s response. “The science and innovation ecosystem for the agriculture and agri-food sector is large and complex, and expanding as emerging fields of science and technology such as artificial intelligence, robotics and sensors offer exciting new possibilities for the sector. More and more, science and innovation for the sector is even extending beyond any one policy area, department or level of government.”

Affleck, a member of the steering committee, said that while a federal-provincial agreement is a crucial element of a national strategy, in and of itself it does not encompass an entire national strategy.

“So it's great if the provinces and the federal government are working on co-ordinating their elements,” he said, “but if we don't include the full research value chain, or researcher, the private sector and the farmer, then you're still looking at one element of a strategy.”

“The agriculture sector is unique in a number of areas and that's why I think a research and innovation strategy specifically for agriculture, that speaks to the research, the commercialization, and the adaptation of the technologies, is very important.”


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