Social science research project aims to accelerate commercialization in agri-food sector

Mark Lowey
February 12, 2020

A new interdisciplinary research project at the University of Saskatchewan will employ social science to investigate barriers to the innovation-to-commercialization process in Canada’s agri-food sector.

The three-year project, which has received $675,000 from the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the university, will explore ways to improve social acceptance of new agri-tech technologies, Steven Webb, executive director and CEO of GIFS, told RE$EARCH MONEY.

“Having a more holistic approach at the very beginning of an innovation cycle, in potentially developing the social license for new technologies, is important for us to continue to innovate in agriculture,” he says.

The grant from GIFS will fund collaborative studies with experts in USask’s Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy (CSIP) in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, and in the university’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

The research will be led by Peter Phillips, a distinguished professor in CSIP, and Stuart Smyth, USask Industry Funded Research Chair and associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

“There are lots of examples of really innovative technologies that have never been able to actually make a difference, because people didn’t think about who was going to use them,” Webb says. “This research will look at some of the barriers that are preventing good technologies from being implemented and used.”

Webb says one example of innovation that has helped farmers be more profitable and reduced environmental impacts is herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops. But when these products were introduced some 24 years ago, little attention was paid to whether farmers would actually use them or if consumers would accept them, he adds.

Multiple factors can hinder the adoption of innovative agri-tech technologies, according to a report by Innovation, Science and Economic Development’s Agri-Food Economic Strategy Table, which set a target of increasing the agri-food sector’s exports to $85 billion by 2025 (a 32% increase from $64.6 billion in 2017). These obstacles include internal regulatory barriers, lagging investment, infrastructure bottlenecks and lack of strong Canadian firms to lead internationally.

Regulatory barriers to innovation

Innovative agri-food products may confront internal, external, and international regulatory barriers on their path to commercialization, Webb says. Domestic regulations that made sense several years ago may not be relevant for how the Canadian sector conducts business today, he says.

It now takes 13 years to bring a new herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant crop to market, Webb notes. “That is a long, long time and lots of money. And the bulk of that is related to regulatory approvals.”

As for external regulatory barriers, Webb points to Corteva Agriscience’s patented “Enlist” herbicide-resistant technology to control weeds in corn, soybean and cotton crops. One of the products, Enlist Duo, combines a proprietary blend of the chemicals glyphosate with 2,4-D.

Canada’s regulatory system approved Enlist technology quickly and farmers in Ontario have had access to it for several years, Webb says. But the technology received approval in China only within the last couple of years. Given the importance of Canadian crop exports, “that (delay) had really prevented the technology from being used by producers here in North America,” he says.

However, the Enlist Duo product has not been without controversy. In the U.S., the National Family Farm Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council went to court to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to register the product. They’re concerned some research suggests glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans, which the EPA and industry disputes.

When it comes to potentially contentious products, Webb says the entire agri-food sector supply chain needs to be thinking about not just the transaction between a corporate provider of a new product and a farmer or producer, but also about consumers who will use the product.

GIFS, in partnering with industry and academics on the new USask project, will make “critical connections” among researchers, policymakers, industry, farmers and producers, and consumers, Webb says. The aim is to encourage a diverse perspective and proactive engagement at the front end of the innovation cycle, not only on the technical challenges of new innovative plant solutions but on whether consumers will accept them, he says.

“Agriculture is a very important industry to Canada and innovation is critical for agriculture,” Webb says. “We need to ensure we are very relevant to both our end-users and the customers.”


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