Atlantic Canada agriculture could be a winner in new strategy

Fields of rapseed growing on coastal Prince Edward Island farm, and cows grazing in a Chebogue, Nova Scotia pasture.

With an eye firmly fixed on Atlantic Canada’s agriculture sector, Genome Atlantic’s Dr. Richard Donald supported Canada’s Genomics Enterprise earlier this year in urging a prominent role for genomics in the Sustainable Agriculture Strategy now being developed by the federal government.

“There is an important role for genomics in agriculture in Atlantic Canada,” said Dr. Donald, Genome Atlantic’s agriculture specialist. He said a brighter, more sustainable future could be assured for agriculture in this region if genomics is given a major role in developing solutions to the climate change conundrum.

 “Although our agriculture system is small compared to that of Quebec, Ontario or the Prairies, more than any other region of Canada, we have a very diverse agriculture ecosystem in Atlantic Canada” he said, “and the possibilities of implementing sustainable practices is greater, I think, than most parts of the country.

“We have huge diversity in what we grow from grains to fruit to blueberries to Christmas trees. And we have a big diversity in livestock as well – beef, dairy and poultry.  That diversity is not apparent in all other big agricultural areas of Canada. For instance, if you think about Saskatchewan’s agriculture sector, it’s based on grains and oil seeds. We have a much more diverse system.”

Genomics offers potential solutions to many of the wide-ranging effects of climate change. For instance, the region’s fruit industry in Atlantic Canada is expected to confront bigger and more frequent storms as well as frosts that arrive earlier and/or later. Genomics presents opportunities to make crops more resilient to the changing climate.

“Our agriculture diversity means we can apply genomic solutions across a wide range of different commodities,” Dr. Donald said. “Spread widely, the results are likely to be better, because some sectors will be more amenable to genomics than others. So if you’re more diverse, you’ve probably got a greater chance of benefit.”

He is pleased the federal government, through its advisory committee, populated with industry experts, academics, producers and associations, and co-chaired by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, is tackling the agriculture sustainability issue to craft a national strategy. “Every developed country is facing the same problem,” he noted. Canada needed to get a handle on the issue to retain its role and reputation as an agri-food powerhouse.

Five concerns are listed in the government’s Sustainable Agriculture for Canada’s Sustainable Agriculture Strategy: Discussion Document:  integrative strategy: soil health, climate adaptation and resilience, water, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity.

In addition to its central message about genomics’ importance in a national sustainability strategy, The Canada Genomics Enterprise response to the government’s Discussion Document suggested nine guiding principals for the new strategy:

  • Align and integrate the new Strategic Plan for Science with the sustainable strategy under development. Science and innovation — especially genomics — are key drivers of sustainability and resiliency in the agricultural sector
  • Be flexible and reflect the strengths and diversity of Canada’s federated food and research ecosystem
  • Prioritize both adaptation and mitigation solutions with flexibility
  • Prioritize investment in genomics and biotechnology research to improve the sustainability and resiliency of traditional breeding practices and processes
  • Support the development of climate-resilient and lower-carbon novel food systems such as cellular agriculture, bioproduction and fermentation technologies
  • Invest in and provide greater support and priority to circularity approaches to agriculture through genomics and biotechnology. Circularity refers to an economic principle, which if applied to agriculture and the food system would be regenerative and resilient, would turn waste into a resource, and would open new domestic and international market opportunities.
  • Adhere to the principles of evidence-based and data-driven tools, programming, policy and decision-making
  • Address barriers to the adoption of new technologies that can support sustainable agriculture and include support for knowledge, mobilization, initiatives that enhance broader public acceptance and adoption
  • Prioritize science-based regulatory modernization to enable smooth adoption of new and emerging technologies that contributes to sustainable agriculture goals.

Canada’s Genomics Enterprise includes Genome Canada and its six regional Genome Centres, which have more than 20 years of experience using genomics to make Canadian agriculture more sustainable and Canadian food more secure.

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