Saskatchewan biosciences: agriculture and more

by • July 19, 2013 • Agri-Food, Editor's Picks, FeatureComments Off on Saskatchewan biosciences: agriculture and more2541

Every day, we hear stories about extreme weather, poverty and wars. There is no longer a debate that the climate is changing; today the question is how to adapt to unpredictable weather patterns.

Added to the mix is a global population that is growing rapidly and predicted to reach nine billion by 2050, an increase of about 40 per cent. More mouths to feed, along with economic shifts and climate change, will result in added pressure on our food production systems.

But there is good news. The world’s brightest minds are at work, searching for solutions to some of these problems through agricultural biotechnology. The Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) gathers those bright minds together each year for an important meeting that explores the use of biotech tools to develop hardier, more nutritious crops, while conserving the planet’s limited resources.

ABIC returns to Saskatoon, SK October 5 to 8, 2014. Since 2010, when the conference was last held here, the realization of the effect that climate change and population growth could have on the world has led to new initiatives that will affect the agbiotech industry in Saskatchewan and beyond.

One example is the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), created in December 2012. Dr. Roger Beachy, an internationally recognized pioneer in plant biotechnology, was appointed as founding executive director and CEO of GIFS and is currently leading the organization through the start-up phase. GIFS is a public-private partnership among PotashCorp, the Government of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan. According to Beachy, GIFS will use its resources to draw upon Saskatchewan’s strengths and capabilities to find solutions in the food and agriculture sector and use them to solve important challenges in global food security.

“GIFS will be a synergizing institute that will provide opportunity for more individuals and more groups to collaborate on new solutions to agriculture problems,” he says. Beachy notes that the provincial government wants to ensure that Saskatchewan’s economy remains strong as an agricultural community and maintain its position as a provider of food, feed and sufficient nutrition for the world market.

Agriculture has always been a major industry in this largely rural province. According to the province’s Ministry of Agriculture website, Saskatchewan contains about 40 per cent of the country’s arable land, but a short growing season and harsh conditions means that farmers have had to be creative and resourceful to grow enough to make a living. Agricultural science goes back to pioneer days: Established in 1907, the Agriculture College at the University of Saskatchewan is nearly as old as the province itself.

Once known as ‘Canada’s Breadbasket,’ for the vast wheat fields that graced the countryside, Saskatchewan agriculture has diversified thanks to agricultural research. Canola (Brassica napus), developed through joint efforts by scientists at Agriculture Canada in Saskatoon and the University of Manitoba, has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and is traded around the world. Research companies continue to improve the crop, building in pest resistance, drought tolerance and increased nutritional qualities. For example, Dow AgroSciences has developed a line of canola called Nexera™ which produces Omega-9 Oil, a unique combination of high-oleic and low-linolenic fatty acids for improved functionality, taste and health.

Wheat is still a major crop in Saskatchewan, and the focus of new research initiative through the Canadian Wheat Flagship Strategic Alliance. Launched in May, the Alliance involves plant scientists from the University of Saskatchewan, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the National Research Council (NRC). With $97 million in funding, new tools and breeding technologies will be developed over the next five years. These tools will become available to help wheat breeders develop varieties that are more drought, cold, heat and disease resistant, and need less nitrogen fertilizer. According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, the alliance is aiming for 20 to 30 per cent yield increases. Dr. Faouzi Bekkaoui, executive director of the Wheat Improvement Flagship Program, NRC’s contribution to the Alliance, says more than 100 researchers will be involved in the Canadian Wheat Alliance program. Work at NRC will include genomics assisted breeding; cell technologies to improve the efficiency of double haploid systems and allow breeders to cut development time; development of fusarium and rust-resistant varieties; improved plant performance, seed yield and abiotic stress tolerance; and research to understand and improve biotic interaction for improved plant health.

Pulse crops have become an important part of Saskatchewan’s agricultural portfolio, again thanks to modern research. According to the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers website, Canada is the world’s number one exporter of pulse crops; 97 per cent of Canadian lentils, 83 per cent of chickpeas and 72 per cent of peas come from Saskatchewan. Crop breeders at the University of Saskatchewan have developed disease resistant varieties that grow well in our climate, while agronomists have determined the best crop rotations to optimize the benefits to the soil from these nitrogenfixing plants. Some Saskatchewan researchers are working to develop plants with increased nutritional value, while others are measuring the health benefits from eating pulses.

Beyond agriculture
A number of companies whose technologies depend on crop development have set up shop in Saskatoon to take advantage of the expertise available here. For example, Agrisoma Biosciences is commercializing a feedstock from Brassica carinata to produce a non-food oil than can be used to make biojet and diesel fuel. The feasibility of the product depends on breeding plants with the right characteristics for the fuel and the agronomic traits to grow on land not suitable for food production. Linnaeus Plant Sciences is working on Camelina sativa to develop an ideal variety for use as an industrial oil feedstock.

Metabolix Oilseeds is developing Camelina to coproduce polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) with seed oil. PHB can be used in multiple applications, including bioplastics, chemicals, and enhanced feeds. Okanagan Specialty Fruits is currently seeking deregulation for two Arctic® apple varieties, in which the genes that produce polyphenol oxidase (the enzyme responsible for browning) are silenced.

Other important activities in Saskatchewan include bioremediation of industrial sites, and research and development of health-related technologies, such as plant-made pharmaceuticals, biodiagnostics and vaccines.

Collaboration between public and private research is a great asset to the companies that are working to develop and commercialize technologies. Saskatchewan has everything a bio-based start-up company needs to thrive: strong business support, world-class infrastructure and human resources expertise.

ABIC 2014:Running back to Saskatoon
For the fifth time, ABIC will be held in the ‘Paris of the Prairies,’ Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (October 5-8, 2014), the heart of agricultural biotechnology in Canada, a province with 40 per cent of Canada’s arable land, and the birthplace of canola, one of the world’s most successful biotech crops. Saskatoon hosted the 10th ABIC in 2010 and drew over 500 participants from 60 countries.

In choosing the theme, “Global Leadership in a Changing World,” Saskatoon’s 2014 steering committee considered the need for leadership in dealing with the challenges of climate change and population growth, and the capacity for agricultural biotechnology industry to step up as a leader in finding solutions. The agbiotech industry believes that privileged countries should share technologies with the under-privileged (developing) countries. According to Muriel Adams, ABIC Foundation’s managing director, at each of its international conferences held in the past 17 years, ABIC generated strategic alliances among key bioscience organizations, governments, and those concerned with the developing world, the kind of links that would not just happen by accident. “Hosting some of these conferences in the third-world shows just how committed ABIC is to its mission.”

ABIC 2014 program development can be followed at www.abic.ca/abic2014. ABIC 2015 will be held in Melbourne, Australia, while the 2016 conference has been awarded to a U.S. location to be announced.

ABIC: A product of Saskatchewan
The Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) is an important industry meeting that began in Saskatoon SK when, Murray McLaughlin, CEO and president of a not-for-profit company, then called Ag-West Biotech, realized that there was no industry conference that focused on agriculture biotechnology. The company partnered with the local bioscience community to create a meeting that would fill that gap.

ABIC 1996 was a huge success. Since then, both the founding company and the conference have evolved: In 2004 Ag-West Biotech merged with two other organizations to become Ag-West Bio; and the ABIC Foundation was created to ensure the international events are of the highest quality. Directors are drawn from several countries. The Foundation’s mission is dedicated to “linking the global business, science, government, and development communities to enable the application of sustainable agricultural technologies for the good of all.”

The conference addresses tough issues, from genetically modified crops, like Golden Rice with higher levels of beta-carotene, to questions surrounding food vs. fuel, to environmental and economic development aspects of biotechnology. ABIC has been hosted in Canada, Germany, Australia, Ireland, Thailand, South Africa and New Zealand.

Wilf Keller, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio, and the Foundation Chair, says ABIC continues to be an important industry meeting. “If anything, the conference is more relevant than ever, considering the global changes that we see coming, including climate change and population growth,” he says. “Agricultural biotechnology will be increasingly important to develop solutions to feeding more people with less land available for agriculture.”

About Ag-West Bio:
Ag-West Bio is Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association. The not-for-profit, member-based company is funded by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and the Federal Growing Forward II program. Ag-West Bio acts as an industry catalyst, hosting events and creating networking and learning opportunities; leading delegations to relevant industry conferences; supporting start-ups through business support and investments, and through communications and supports the development of a transparent, efficient policy and regulatory framework in Canada. www.agwest.sk.ca.

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