Guelph, Ont.’s University of Guelph (U of G) has received $76.6 million from the federal government to start a “digital revolution” in food and agriculture. The funding is going towards U of G’s Food From Thought research project, which aims use high-tech information systems to help produce enough food for a growing human population while sustaining the Earth’s ecosystems.
“This will position Canada as a leader in sustainable food production,” says U of G president Franco Vaccarino, who adds that 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.”
The funding will come from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), which supports world-leading research at universities and colleges; and according to a U of G news release, it’s the largest single federal research investment in U of G history.
Food From Thought is expected to create new and innovative 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,” says 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.
U of G is well-placed to lead this project, says Campbell. “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.”
According to geography professor Evan Fraser, scientific director of Food From Thought and director of U of G’s Food Institute, launching a digital revolution will require improving our 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 says.
Food From Thought aims to bring together experts to generate and commercialize knowledge, and to inform agri-food policy-makers and practices from farm management to global conservation planning. It 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.
Food From Thought will also include partnerships with other academic institutions around the world, numerous government agencies, and industry and innovation centres. One key partner will be 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,” says Sanjeev Gill, research executive at IBM Canada.