A key player in Canada’s agtech sector, the Global Institute for Food Security at USask
has set up a new omics and precision agriculture lab to improve crop yield, profitability and sustainability; and a new partnership to lower pesticide use.
Led by the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), Canada, the Omics and Precision Agricultural Laboratory (OPAL) was launched at the start of this year as a state-of-the-art facility that combines the digital data analysis of microbial, plant and animal genes and traits with the latest precision agriculture technologies (agtech).
OPAL is a partnership between Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council of Canada and USask, with a strategic investment from Western Economic Diversification Canada, the facility provides combined genomics, phenomics and bioinformatics services to Canada’s agriculture and food sectors.
“At GIFS, our vision is a world where everyone has access to safe and nutritious food,” explains Dr. Steven Webb (PhD), GIFS’ CEO. “It’s a bold vision, but we’re guided by our mission to work with partners to discover, develop and deliver innovative solutions for the production of globally sustainable food.”
The institute collaborates with diverse partners including industry, government, producers and researchers on innovative agtech to accelerate plant breeding, enhance digital agriculture, increase quality crop yield, and build plant resilience to climate change.
Saskatchewan – home to 30% of Canada’s agtech industry
The latest manifestation of GIFS’ approach, OPAL, is very much at home in Saskatchewan, which lays claim to about 30% of Canada’s booming agtech industry, and is recognised as the world’s largest exporter of peas, lentils, durum wheat, mustard seed, canola, flaxseed and oats. The province also hosts Canada’s Farm Progress Show, the largest agricultural show in the world, attracting 40,000 global leaders.
The USask campus community alone boasts one of the world’s largest agri-food and bioscience clusters, with institutions such as the Crop Development Centre, the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, and the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) in close proximity.
The university is also the leader in water resources research in Canada, and globally recognised for its work in sustainability and in agriculture and food security.
The first of its kind in the country, OPAL combines the digital data analyses of microbe, plant and animal genes and traits with the latest imaging and precision agtech. The goal is to speed up innovation towards new products and services that would improve yield, profitability and sustainability in the agriculture and agri-food sector.
“OPAL is a one-stop-shop for microbe, plant and animal analyses, and provides high-tech, integrated services to support the biotechnology ecosystem in Canada,” notes Webb. “Through OPAL, the agricultural industry in Western Canada now has proximity to Canada’s most integrated omics and precision agriculture facility to analyse crop data extensively.”
The laboratory blends GPS, remote aerial imaging, unmanned aerial vehicles and in-field environmental monitoring with digital DNA sequence information to provide a complete profile of plant samples. The versatile equipment can also analyse animal and human samples.
“OPAL’s package includes genomics, phenomics, computational informatics, flow cytometry for detailed analyses of cells and ‘pheno-informatics’, using drones and other precision agriculture technology to provide detailed assessments of crops in the field,” explains Webb. “This extensive package offers the agriculture and food sectors the most detailed and comprehensive insights into microbial, plant and animal samples.”
“The laboratory’s detailed plant analyses will help farmers target their crops with the right amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides, rather than uniformly spraying these products across their fields,” he continues. “This precision in agriculture means a more efficient use of resources and reduced environmental impact, leading to accelerated crop breeding, less waste, and increased efficiency for breeders, agronomists, producers and other stakeholders.”
Launched last month (January 2021), OPAL is already providing bioinformatics and long- and short-read genetic sequencing services to clients in the public and private sectors, as well as large and small organisations. Its detailed plant analyses will also help farmers target their crops with the right amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides, rather than uniformly spraying these products across their fields. Such precision means a more efficient use of resources and reduced environmental impact, leading to better crop yield, profitability, and greater sustainability and accountability.
Lowering pesticide use
GIFS is also spearheading another agtech collaboration, a new US$20 million Protein Industries Canada (PIC) partnership focused on developing technology to lower pesticide use across Canada. The project involves using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect weeds and other crop pests, so they can be targeted directly with pesticides. PIC believes AI has the potential to radically reduce pesticide use while maintaining crop yield, saving farmers about US$40 per acre per growing season.
“The technology being produced as part of this project is expected to reduce crop protection product use by up to 95% due to its ability to precisely target weeds using micro-doses of spray,” explains Bill Greuel, CEO of Protein Industries Canada.
Roughly 120 Canadian jobs are expected to be created as part of the project, which is led by Precision.ai Inc, Sure Growth Solutions Inc, Exceed Grain Marketing, and GIFS.
The first and second rounds of spray testing trials to confirm the technology’s effectiveness have already taken place: “Precision.ai will be working on chemical analysis and analytical data over the next few months, and early trial results will be forthcoming,” reports Greuel.
GIFS is providing PIC with valuable insight into plant imaging, which it uses to help train the AI technology to determine which plants to target when spraying. GIFS believes the new imaging tools and innovations created as a result of this project could have huge benefits to the Canadian agricultural community. GIFS is also strongly contributing to data management, with work in this area already underway.
“GIFS’ expertise in supporting this project is built around its Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre (P2IRC) Program,” explains Chris Barker, GIFS’ director of business development.
The GIFS-managed P2IRC is a USask digital agricultural research centre established to develop innovative tools to revolutionize crop improvement by accelerating the process of plant breeding and transforming food production capacity, according to Barker.
“The PIC project’s outcomes will integrate AI with data management tools developed in the P2IRC program to efficiently turn massive amounts of image data into actionable management decisions,” continues Barker.
“At GIFS, we believe that with collaboration and commitment, innovative agtech can help build sustainable food security,” concludes GIFS’ Webb. “However, there needs to be structure to guide the extensive validation of the technologies before they can be successfully deployed as innovative agriculture solutions. By working together with diverse stakeholders and continued investments in research and development, we can advance and accelerate agtech’s use as a valuable tool that enables sustainable access to safe and nutritious food in Saskatchewan, across Canada and everywhere in the world where the technologies are deployed.”
Wheat genetics code cracked
A University of Saskatchewan-led team recently cracked the genetic code for 15 different types of wheat through the 10+ Genome project in collaboration with 95 scientists from around the world. The discovery unlocks genetic differences between wheat lines that are important for breeding and will help researchers to genetically modify crops more effectively to increase their resilience to fungus, pests, and disease.
“In 2018, only a single wheat genome had been published, but now we have pushed 15 genome sequences,” explains Dr. Curtis Pozniak, USask Crop Development Centre director and project lead. “Having multiple sequences is powerful, because it allows a detailed comparison at the DNA level of many wheat varieties.”
As part of the work, a huge database was developed to enable wheat researchers to examine and compare the genomes of each of the sequenced varieties, and to identify with precision the genetic differences that may drive. Multiple genome sequences also allowed the team to identify regions of the genome that are near identical between varieties.
“These regions could be a target in breeding experiments to introduce ‘new’ diversity to further enhance wheat improvement,” notes Pozniak.
The 10+ Genome project will allow wheat scientists and breeders to develop new tools to improve breeding efficiently, and provides a framework to understand the organisation of genes in cultivated wheat and how they function to confer improvements to wheat performance in farmers’ fields.
“Our wheat breeding programs at the Crop Development Centre are using these genome sequences to develop molecular diagnostic tools that can aid in selection, resulting in improved breeding efficiency as we work to develop new cultivars for wheat producers in western Canada,” concludes Pozniak. “In fact, two of the varieties that were sequenced were from Canada and were chosen to capture the diversity used in our breeding programs.”
To learn more about how Canada’s expertise in agribusiness contributes to meaningful business events and advancements of the agribusiness industry, visit Destination Canada’s website: www.businesseventscanada.ca/economic-sectors/agribusiness