McKercher Leaderboard March 2021
Profiles

Hungry for Change: The Global Institute for Food Security is Transforming Agriculture for the Better

GIFS is creating new technologies to help feed the world. Photo by David Stobbe.
GIFS is creating new technologies to help feed the world. Photo by David Stobbe.

Did you know Saskatchewan is home to over 40 per cent of Canada’s cultivated farmland and the province is the largest agri-food exporter and second-largest cattle producer in the country? We’re also the largest exporter of peas, lentils, durum wheat, mustard seed, canola, flaxseed, and oats on the planet. Did you know some of the country’s—and the world’s—brightest agriculture innovators and cutting-edge technologies are also found here? The Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan is at the forefront of turning the province into even more of an agriculture innovation powerhouse.

Breaking Ground on Big Things

GIFS Drone.

Drone captures crop images at Usask’s plant research fields as part of GIFS’ plant phenotyping and imaging research centre program. Photo by Seungbum Steve Ryu.

In March 2021, GIFS announced that it is now home to a new engineering biology centre—a ground-breaking facility that will accelerate research and development in agri-food and address food security issues. Engineering biology (also known as biomanufacturing) is a new field that uses genomics and molecular biology—along with computing, artificial intelligence, and automation—to revolutionize everything from food to pharmaceuticals to fuel. It is also a lucrative one, with a recent report from the McKinsey Institute estimating the field could lead to global economic impacts of up to $4 trillion in the next 10 to 20 years. The economic and scientific impacts of a lab like this are staggering—and our province is fortunate enough to have one.

GIFS’ biomanufacturing platform will support multiple sectors of the economy, particularly helping to scale up numerous ‘creative’ processes in several different sectors—agriculture and food, healthcare, energy, the environment, manufacturing, etc. Using the biomanufacturing platform, industry will be able to create reagents, proteins and peptides that can make food production more efficient, increase the nutritional value of food, create entirely new food products, and make plants and animals more resistant to drought. The Centre will provide industry with the building blocks they need to scale up their own production, while also rapidly delivering products that support research and innovation in agri-food and biotechnology. As the national node for engineering biology in agriculture and food, the outcome will be accelerated discovery, development and delivery of innovative products that meet market demand efficiently and sustainably.

Two months prior to the Innovation Centre announcement, GIFS launched its integrated Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory. Known as OPAL, this facility is also a game changer. It is a state-of-the-art laboratory and one-stop shop for the complete analyses of microbial, plant and animal samples for the agriculture and agri-food sectors. The first and only facility like it in Canada, it offers integrated analytical and computational services including genomics, phenomics and bioinformatics services. These services—combined with the latest imaging and agricultural technologies (agtech), such as global positioning systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, aerial imaging of plants and in-field environmental monitoring—provide clients with a complete diagnostic profile of samples.

What it Means

The Centre will be involved in research on climate-change resistant canola, creating flavourings for the plant-based meat industry (an industry exploding in growth) and non-animal enzyme alternatives for the dairy industry to create new cheeses and yogurts. Each of the projects have an end goal—to make quality, nutritious food for the world—and all have major commercialization potential. The Centre and GIFS are there to help guide these innovative ideas and many more to the marketplace.

OPAL is addressing the challenges presented by climate change and limited water and nutrient supplies. For example, using OPAL’s cutting-edge agtech, farmers will be able to target inputs like water and fertilizer to precisely where they need to go. This means more efficient use of resources, better environmental impact, less waste and better yields—great news for the world’s agriculture sector.

The Big Picture

“The Centre and OPAL are parts of the value proposition we offer the agri-food and pharmaceutical industries, among others,” says Dr. Steven Webb, GIFS executive director and CEO. Dr. Webb came back to Saskatchewan in 2019 after a lengthy career in agri-food research and development in the U.S. He and the GIFS team are centering GIFS as a major player in the North American agri-food ecosystem, and the new engineering biology Centre and OPAL are just two components of GIFS’ offering to the sector.

“I was excited about coming back to Saskatchewan because of the massive and thriving agri-food and biotechnology ecosystem here. We have one of the world’s largest clusters for agri-food and bioscience, including the University of Saskatchewan, Nutrien, Ag-West Bio, the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre Inc., VIDO-InterVac, the Canadian Light Source, Innovation Place, the National Research Council of Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and so much more,” says Webb.

The Secret Ingredient

GIFS is more than just research and development—it’s an innovation catalyst and a connector to the marketplace. The organization is designed to take great ideas and bridge them into commercialization, which is no small feat. Like agtech, agri-food research is capital intensive with longer timelines often due to growing seasons and field trials. “Traditional tech incubators and accelerator models don’t work well in the agriculture space,” says Webb. “The structural differences require more patience, have more regulatory hurdles, need more public buy-in and more capital to reach the market.” GIFS is there to address this gap and steer research and big ideas with access to facilities, funding and experts to get an idea beyond the thought stage and into the food chain—literally.

Key to GIFS’ operations is partnerships. As a connector, the institute works with partners across the agri-food value chain serving bring innovation to market. As an example, OPAL is a partnership that includes Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council of Canada and the University of Saskatchewan that allows the facility to provide leading edge services to Canada and the world.

Join Up

With state-of-the-art research facilities, a network of talented researchers and collaborators, and worldwide connections for funding and market access, GIFS (and Saskatchewan) are on the cusp of an agtech revolution. If you’re a researcher or a commercial venture with the next big idea, GIFS can help you. “Our Ideas Portal is online and open to proposals,” says Webb. “We’re in one of the strongest agri-science ecosystems on the planet, and we’re here to bring science and industry together. Reach out—we want to know how we can help you make the next big agri-food breakthrough.”

Learn more about the Global Institute for Food Security at gifs.ca.