Agri-food sector still seeking recipe for IP and innovation

Guest Contributor
November 9, 2022

Canada, a global agri-food superpower that feeds the world, is expected to do even more as global threats and challenges mount. This was the message from Liberal MP Kody Blois (Kings-Hants, Nova Scotia), who chairs the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food, in his opening keynote address to the Agri-food Innovation Council annual meeting in Ottawa at the beginning of November.

Over the course of the day-and-a-half conference, speakers discussed threats and opportunities for Canada’s agri-food industry related to the conference theme: the globalization of agri-food research and innovation. Topics of discussion included the economic and competitive impact of globalization on research and innovation, the legal, regulatory and intellectual property issues, Canada’s record of commercialization relative to other agri-food jurisdictions, and Canada’s capacity for recruiting international researchers.

There was a general consensus among many participants that Canadian agri-food sector has benefitted economically and competitively from global research and innovation.

“I think by any metric you look at, global expenditures on R&D or patents, the vast majority of knowledge gets created outside of our borders,” Andrew Goldstein, Assistant Associate Deputy Minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), told Research Money. “You want to tap into that expertise around the world, because in agriculture there are certain things that are very local in terms of how you apply your solutions, but at the same time, there are many common issues around the world that we’re all confronting.”

A similar view came from Dr. Larry Martin, Principal with Agri-food Management Excellence. “If I look around,” he said, “most of the basic research in some of the kinds of things that have been the big innovations in Canada generally start somewhere else and come here.”

The agri-food regulatory system factored prominently in discussions, as a key opportunity for driving investment in research and innovation. More specifically, weaknesses in this system were regarded as barriers to commercialization.

“Very slow approval processes inhibit our commercialization and dissuades foreign investment in Canada,” said Jarred Cohen, Agriculture Policy Advisor with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Similarly, there was agreement that the current system was not able to keep pace with advances in science and technology. According to Krista Thomas, VP, Seed Innovation & Trade Policy with the Canada Grains Council, while Canada ranks among the leaders in adopting genetically modified crops, the current biotechnology regulatory framework will limit the improvements made possible by technologies like gene editing.

Thomas stressed the need for clear guidance from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, so that gene editing could spur investments in research and innovation. While most speakers agreed that regulatory reforms and harmonization were necessary, Goldstein highlighted the importance of having clear objectives when making changes to the system.

“Establishing a rules-based system that is transparent, that’s clear,” he said. “Those are the things that are required for investment.”

Other topics of discussion generated widely varying perspectives, including Canada’s capacity for commercialization, which was hotly debated. At issue was exactly what Canada’s strengths are, whether in research, innovation, commercialization, or scale-up.

“[The government] thinks our innovation problem is not invention, but only commercialization,” said Robert Asselin, Senior VP Policy with the Business Council of Canada. “I would argue it’s both.”

He pointed to low levels of patenting and IP retention as indicators of Canada’s lacklustre record of translating intellectual capital into economic value. Nor did everyone agree that IP represented an appropriate metric of innovation for the agri-food sector.

“A lot of the research we [AAFC] do has very clear tangible economic benefits, but it’s not necessarily patentable, Goldstein said, referring to massive investments in digital agriculture and the increasing value of data as examples of non-patentable innovations. “It’s the investments that improve yields and make our sector more resilient.”

Dr. Guillaume Lhermie, Director of the Simpson Centre for Food and Agriculture Policy at the University of Calgary, noted that the IT sector rarely uses patents as part of the commercialization process.

“They don’t patent too much,” he explained. “They are focusing on the process, to make it work and then sell it. This is the way they want to make cash. It is completely different.  So, patents are probably not the best marker of economic value.”

Other speakers questioned who really benefited from patents, whether it was companies or farmers. Further complicating this picture is the confusing array of intellectual property ownership policies at Canadian universities, which often act as a barrier to commercialization, especially when private sector interests collaborate on academic work.

“It’s important to these companies, who are funding sponsored research, that at the end of the day, they own that intellectual property,” said Jeffery Coles, Partner with Gowling WLG. “So, we need to do better at having systems in place to set that up and make it an efficient process.”

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