Changed attitudes to agricultural technology will be needed to meet the growing global demand for food and unlock agriculture’s potential to help mitigate climate change and adapt to its challenges.
That was the consensus of a three-member panel on Increasing Research Impact – A look at Biotech Opportunities, at the 2022 Nova Scotia Agriculture Minister’s Conference, moderated by Dr. Richard Donald, a Genome Atlantic Associate, and Jolene MacEachern, Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture strategy specialist in research and development. The panel was sponsored by Genome Atlantic with organizational support from the Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture.
Relaxing after the event are panellists Dr. Christiane Deslauriers, left, an agricultural consultant and a former Director General for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and right, Dr. Nathan Pumplin, CEO of California-based Norfolk Health Produce, a company working to introduce a ground-breaking purple tomato to the U.S. market. Centre, is Genome Atlantic Associate Dr. Richard Donald, who served as a moderator. Genome Atlantic sponsored the panel with support from Dalhousie University.
“ Are we ready to position agriculture as something that can provide a lot of solutions…like capturing carbon, like restoring biodiversity?” asked Dr. Christiane Deslauriers, an agricultural consultant and a former Director General for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“There are so many things agriculture can do,” but she suggested the sector has become so stereotyped in the popular imagination that there is hesitancy to use new available technology to exploit the sector for greater societal benefits.
Controlled Environment Agriculture, for instance, that grows crops indoors under technology-controlled conditions can boost production by 400 times per acre according to some estimates compared with conventional agriculture. “Are consumers willing to embrace it? Or are they uncomfortable with food that is not produced in the open air?” she asked.
She told the conference how early on in her career as a fruit breeder she experienced the effect of resistance to advances such as genetic modification which might have helped to improve traits like disease resistance in apple and pear varieties, including those grown in Nova Scotia. Unease with those developments has restricted most tree fruit breeding programs to standard crossing and selection methods that require several multi-year cycles to obtain a new marketable variety with all the desired characteristics. She postulated that nostalgic and quaint views are hindering the public’s acceptance of agriculture as a sophisticated, highly technical enterprise, but cautioned, “it’s not reality.”
Dr. Deslauriers was joined on the panel by Nova Scotia Senator Colin Deacon, a former member of the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry and by Dr. Nathan Pumplin, CEO of California-based Norfolk Health Produce, a company working to introduce a ground-breaking purple tomato to the U.S. market. The tomato, a genetically modified organism achieved through the addition of two snapdragon genes, promises a more than doubled shelf-life compared to standard red tomatoes, along with additional health benefits for consumers due to its antioxidant-rich purple pigments.
Jolene MacEachern, from Dalhousie University, left, helps moderate the panel discussion, Increasing Research Impact – A Look at Biotech Opportunities, at the 2022 Nova Scotia Agriculture Minister’s Conference. At Dalhousie, she is the Faculty of Agriculture’s strategy specialist in research and development. Right, is a screen shot of Sen. Colin Deacon, a former member of the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, who participated by video link.
Senator Deacon cited increasing urgency to improve agricultural productivity through innovation. “The world has to feed more people in the next 40 years than the previous 10,000 years combined,” he said. Meanwhile, government has been complacent: “Agriculture is not a priority in our economy” and he said, “I don’t see it as a political priority.”
“We have to focus on mobilizing knowledge for the benefit of Canadians,” he said, “and we don’t do that well in Canada.” Much of the Intellectual property (IP) funded and developed by Canadian taxpayers through the provision of research facilities, equipment and salaries is being exploited elsewhere.
Senator Deacon maintained Canadian regulatory barriers hamper the country’s ability to capitalize on its innovations. “So we’ve got to find new ways of getting our regulators a lot closer to our innovators, so that we can make sure that we can safely apply innovations to the benefit of Canadians.” He added, “I’m not talking about deregulation; I’m talking about agile, relevant, current regulations tied to current risks, to current opportunities and current issues.”
South Korea, Singapore, the United States and Germany, he pointed out, “have got us beat in how they are using their own research to the benefit of their economies.”
Dr. Pumplin explained the United States tackled the issue in 1980 with the Bayh-Dole Act that “incentivizes the universities to incentivize the inventors, professors and scientists to get direct benefits.” The act opened the spigot for university and non-profit research-driven innovation.
Despite the odds, Dr. Pumplin said Canadian innovators are still making headway. He singled out a Nova Scotia company, Foodimprover, a startup developing a gene-editing platform to produce healthier, hardier apples. “They have a very innovative approach,“ he said, “and it seems that they’re able to navigate a way through the IP landscape such that they can really build the business to be successful. But that’s not easy.”
He said, “it shouldn’t take an entrepreneur with extreme stamina and extreme creativity and connections to do this.”
“There is no easy trajectory from the bench to the marketplace,” Ms. MacEachern said. A specialist in agriculture, formerly with Dalhousie University’s Office of Industry Liaison, she said she initially thought her OIL job would be easy: “And here I am five years later, after dents in my head from banging my head against the same wall for five years…This is not simple.”
Given the overall impact of agriculture, Dr. Deslauriers lamented, “it doesn’t have a profile that reflects its importance.”
Unlike other industries and areas of scientific endeavour, she said, agriculture still appears to draw most of its participants from the farming community which is an increasingly small percentage of the population. Perhaps this has changed, but as an agriculture student at university she discovered, “I was one out of three people in the class of about 100 who wasn’t born on the farm.”
Dr. Pumplin was an outlier in that way as well: “I don’t come from an agricultural background, but when I was at university I got really excited about biology.” While he said it was important to retain farming traditions, “at the same time we have massive challenges and so we need to bring in new technology and a really creative spirit.”
Agriculture should be mainstreamed, said Dr. Deslauriers, in a way that isn’t limited to the “hereditary professional” but opens it up as an appealing career option like engineering or any other pursuit.
The panel was sponsored by Genome Atlantic. Dr. Donald explained, “ we have a mission to help define the economic and social benefits of genomics technologies and really good technologies across many sectors.” Since Genome Atlantic’s inception in 2000, the organization has worked with partners to create more than $150 million in end-user-led genomic research and development for Atlantic Canada.