Canada needs more basic science, says new institute head

An interview with Roger Beachy, executive director and chief executive officer of the Global Institute of Food Security

The University of Saskatchewan recently established the Global Institute of Food Security, and appointed Roger Beachy as executive director and chief executive officer. Over the last 40 years, Beachy has held several positions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other research organizations. He also helped develop the first genetically modified food crop, a tomato resistant to viral disease. I recently interviewed Beachy on his reaction to the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network report on sustainable agriculture and food systems, released Sept. 18.

What do you see as the biggest risk to Canada if we don’t adapt our agricultural systems?

I expect that there will be an increased shift in the rich countries like Canada to a greater focus on nutrition and well-being. And paying attention to those things will give us a little better handle on what markets we should grow for. And then the commodities that are presently produced here in Western Canada I think will need to be fitted for specific markets that may or may not be specifically in the health markets.

In the Prairies, I think (we should focus) as much as possible on the grains that we grow that are nutrient rich. Pulses, for example, like chickpeas and lentils and so forth. They have high dietary value and really carry a lot of good things in them.

Now, the question I guess is what does that mean for exports? And maybe we need to be as informed as possible about what our customers want. In other words, not just push out into the market what we can make.

It’s sort of a given that over the years we produce what we’ve produced best, whether it’s wheat or barley or canola, and just push it out. What I’m saying is that getting the information back from not just the person who buys it, not just the grain handler, but what does he sell into? And what markets does he receive into? Go beyond.

Who are our competitors in other international markets?

Wheat will come from Ukraine so how do we make sure that we maintain the wheat market in China in the face of wheat imports or wheat challenge from Ukraine and Russia?

And do you think we’re starting to do that?

I think so, at least I sense that there is a greater emphasis on that side. Our trade missions that go from Canada are listening and trying to make sure that those (markets) stay open and that we know what we’re looking for.

What are the roles of the public and private sector in improving food security?

Private-sector (companies) are not well suited for discovery science. They’re well suited for the translation of fundamental science, basic science, into knowledge that then makes a product or a seed variety, whatever it is.

Sometimes discovery for discovery’s sake, sort of blue-sky science, is good and we must have some of that.

But another proportion of university-funded research would go to the basic sciences that would, say, discover how plants use water, so sometime we’ll have a good handle on drought tolerance… or how do they pick up minerals and elements in the soil. That could be translated then into the use of better applications of fertilizer.

It’s a fine line between discovery and translation. And often — too often — the public thinks that the companies are doing all this research, so why should we fund plant sciences or agriculture sciences in universities? Because companies don’t fund that fundamental stuff. They don’t do the fundamental stuff. They’re not geared for it. So that’s a very important (role) university sciences play.

What does the rest of the agriculture industry need to do to adapt?

We need to know what science can bring to the table. We need to know what the consumer wants and is willing to accept of the new variety. Because it has drought tolerance it might have a flavour or a different look or it might have some characteristics that then take some adaption by the baking industry. So we need to know all the pieces between gene discovery and trait discovery and utilization.

And we have to know what the consumer will buy. And I think the smartest thing we can do is engage the broad community in these discussions very early on.

When it comes to meeting global food security challenges in Canada, what are our strengths?

I think what we have is good fundamental sciences. I don’t think there’s enough science in Canada. I think we need to have more investment in the space.

But I think the co-operation between the growers and the checkoff funds and the universities is as good here as any place in the world I’ve seen it. And if you have that in combination with the support of provincial government, you have a real capability of maintaining active, vibrant research and an involved producer sector that helps in deciding what’s done and is informed enough to look forward to markets and sees what the big longer-term plan is.

And with that, we ought to be collaborating across the provinces to see what’s best for the region. Not be competitive but look at what each can do. And you’re a small enough community, you can make this happen.

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