The University of Guelph has received $76.6 million from the federal government to start a “digital revolution” in food and agriculture.
The government is investing in U of G’s Food From Thought research project, which will use high-tech information systems to help produce enough food for a growing human population while sustaining the Earth’s ecosystems.
The funding, announced today by Lloyd Longfield, MP for Guelph, on behalf of Kirsty Duncan, minister of science, will come from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), which supports world-leading research at universities and colleges.
It’s the largest single federal research investment in U of G history.
“This will position Canada as a leader in sustainable food production,” said U of G president Franco Vaccarino, adding the project will help farmers produce more food on less land using fewer inputs.
“Our faculty, staff and students will have opportunities to participate in innovative discovery and to play a role in tackling one of the world’s greatest challenges: how to sustainably feed our growing population.”
Longfield added: “The University of Guelph has a long history of collaborating across Canada and globally to contribute to understanding complex challenges. The global food supply will require the University’s unique leadership skills that bring together agricultural expertise, big data, environmental science, business and civil society. Today’s funding announcement will give Canada a huge step forward to become a global leader in food.”
Food From Thought will create novel tools for producing more and safer food while also protecting the environment.
“It is not just how much food we produce but also the way we produce it that will be key in the next century,” said Prof. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research), who is the institutional lead for Food From Thought and a plant genomicist in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
New technology and agricultural practices must enhance biodiversity, produce safe, nutritious food, and improve animal welfare and human health, he said.
U of G is well-placed to lead this project, Campbell said. “We are Canada’s food university, with a 150-year legacy in agri-food and a reputation for innovation and commitment. We also have the capacity, with world-class researchers and facilities, and strong partnerships with government and industry.”
Geography professor Evan Fraser, scientific director of Food From Thought and director of U of G’s Food Institute, said launching a digital revolution will require improved understanding of the complex interplay between farming practices, the genetic potential of our crops and livestock, and the environment.
“This is essential if we are to realize the potential offered by our emerging ability to collect vast amounts of data and to develop information management systems,” he said.
Food From Thought will bring together experts to generate and commercialize knowledge, and to inform agri-food policy-makers and practices from farm management to global conservation planning.
The initiative will offer new teaching and research opportunities, and will focus on training the next generation of agri-food leaders through fellowships and graduate student positions.
More than $1 million will be available for annual research awards and competitions intended to develop innovations for sustainable food systems.
Within Food From Thought, researchers will work on key scientific missions including:
- Expanding use of DNA barcoding technology developed at U of G to identify food fraud, food-borne ailments and invasive pests, and to improve environmental impact assessments;
- Using “big data” on farms to reduce pesticide use, monitor watershed health and identify crops suited to the effects of climate change; and
- Using information management systems to help track emerging infectious disease threats to livestock and control pathogens in the food supply.
Food From Thought includes partnerships with academic institutions around the globe, numerous government agencies, and industry and innovation centres.
One key partner is IBM Canada, which will be involved in everything from research collaborations to cognitive and data analytics tools and training to secure cloud-based storage.
“IBM shares the scientific vision of Food From Thought: ensuring that we sustainably, resiliently and safely increase production while enhancing ecosystem services and livestock health and welfare using data-driven approaches,” said Sanjeev Gill, research executive at IBM Canada.
Food From Thought will be one of U of G’s largest and most inclusive research projects, spanning all seven colleges. It will be led by 10 principal investigators from across campus.
Today’s funding announcement was part of a $900-million competition lasting several months and involving a review panel of Canadian and international scientific experts. This is the second CFREF competition since 2014.