Genomics
for Agriculture
& Agri-Food

Ontario’s Strategic Opportunity

Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector is critically important to all of us — as individuals and as a society. We rely heavily on the sector, not only to feed, nourish and employ us, but also for a wide variety of industrial bioproducts. We count on farming and processing technologies that contribute to Ontario’s and Canada’s economic development, protect the environment, mitigate and adapt to climate change, and promote human health and wellness as well as animal welfare.

Rapid advancements in genomics-based innovations and technologies provide significant opportunities to advance Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector.

Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector is strong and growing. However, the demands and challenges the sector is faced with are also growing.

In the context of enhancing a socially and environmentally responsible industry, genomics-based innovations and technologies provide significant opportunities to advance Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector. Genomics technologies coupled with precision agriculture methodologies and artificial intelligence will revolutionize the sector.

 

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Ontario’s Contribution

 
Current Importance

Current Importance

Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector is large and highly diverse. At $37.6B1, it accounts for approximately one third of the total GDP generated by the sector in Canada.

One in every eight jobs in Ontario currently comes from the agriculture and agri-food sector which includes input and service suppliers, primary agricultural producers, industrial bioproducts manufacturers, transporters and distributors, food and beverage processors, food retailers and wholesalers, and foodservice providers.

Outlook

Outlook

Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector is well-positioned for significant growth.

  • It has a growing population, access to abundant arable land and water, stable and well-established markets and political system, strong infrastructure, and an educated workforce.
  • Advanced technologies are being applied to enhance agricultural production and food processing at increasing rates.

Genomics’ Impact

The promise of genomics technologies is to improve the efficiency, quality and yield of crop and livestock development. ‘Omics technologies also enable the analysis of unintended changes in new crop varieties and livestock breeds that result in new cultivars, regardless of the techniques used to develop them — whether through conventional crossbreeding or genetic engineering.

Communications to educate and engage the public about beneficial new technologies is essential to ensure both social acceptance and sector growth.

The rapid advancement of the Ontario agriculture and agri-food industry is largely due to uptake of new technologies, such as new cultivars, vaccines, improved agronomic practices, and advanced mechanization. There is considerable opportunity and need for genomics technologies to further advance the sector. However, the uptake of new technologies by developers and growers requires their confidence that the application will be socially accepted and result in a positive economic and/or environmental benefit.

It must be recognized that — despite the scientific rigour of development and the high quality safety and efficacy standards involved with regulatory reviews in Canada — the application of genomics innovations in the agriculture and agri-food sector can be a source for public concern. Communications to educate and engage the public about beneficial new technologies is essential to correct misperceptions and ensure both social acceptance and sector growth.

Ontario’s Genomics R&D Capacity

Agriculture and agri-food sector focused genomics R&D involves public, not-for-profit and for-profit private organizations working collaboratively provincially, across the country and around the world.

Ontario has established stellar agriculture and agri-food research and innovation capacity in academia, in government and in the private sector. Ontario benefits from:

  • more than 20 universities across the province and 26 colleges providing education and training in agriculture, animal, and food sciences and related practices
  • a long-standing partnership and recently renewed 10-year $713M agreement between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the University of Guelph to further discovery and innovation, and position Canada as a world leader in agri-food

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Sector Connections

Links between Agriculture and the World

Genomics-based technologies, coupled with precision agriculture methodologies and artificial intelligence, will revolutionize the agriculture and agri-food sector. These opportunities and advances are linked with and will have positive impacts for other priority sectors across Ontario and around the world.

Environment & Climate Change

Climate change along with year-to-year variability in weather patterns will have a major impact on agricultural production. A major focus of genomics R&D is on adaptation to and mitigation of the impacts of climate change.

Adaptation — It is expected that most regions of Canada will warm during the next several decades, which will result in increased greenhouse gas (GHG) level emissions. This can have both positive and negative impacts on agricultural production. For example:

  • Crops will have to endure temperature increases, extreme weather events, changes in water availability during germination and pollination seasons, and changes in the incidence and severity of weeds, pests and diseases. On the positive side, there may be expansion of the growing season that could increase crop productivity, expanded crop diversity and better soil due to reduced greenhouse gas emissions as a result of changes in land use.

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Biodiversity Genomics

Biodiversity is the basis of resilient agriculture. It includes all species of crops and domesticated livestock and the variety within them − as well as all of the ecosystem services, such as soil and water conservation, maintenance of soil fertility and biota, and pollination − all of which are essential to sustain agriculture and human well-being.

In addition to sustaining livelihoods, biodiversity is essential to:

  • ensure the production of food, fibre, fuel, and fodder
  • maintain other ecosystem services
  • allow adaptation to changing conditions, including climate change

Biodiversity genomics is a relatively new field that can be defined as the use of DNA, as part of a larger framework of integrated data, to answer questions about the diversity and processes that govern the patterns of life on the planet, and how they change. It enables us to discover new species, detect invasive species, and protect and minimize the loss of existing populations and species.

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Societal Matters

Applications of genomics approaches and technologies offer numerous beneficial impacts. However, in order to flourish, genomics innovations must be addressed in the context of ethical and policy questions because its applications can directly affect the environment, and both human and animal health and nutrition for worse or for better.

There is a need to educate and engage the public at large about advances in genomics, including the ethical, legal and social implications that they pose.

Policies need to be socially acceptable in order to be sustainable and effective. This means that policies should be informed by the views of a public that is accurately informed. Therefore, there is a need to educate and engage the public at large about the basics of genomics and the advances being made, including the ethical, legal and social implications that they pose. Policy making must incorporate an ongoing analysis of public perception of genomics to ensure that it constructively addresses areas of public concern and the apprehensions of society towards genomics-based applications.

With this in mind, Genome Canada and the Genome Centres have created significant expertise in Canada through the funding of integrated GE3LS studies—the Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal, and Social aspects of genomics. GE3LS studies investigate questions at the intersection of genomics and society. They provide stakeholders the insights needed to anticipate impacts of scientific advances in genomics, avoid pitfalls, and cultivate success.

Considerations

We are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution − where the speed of current breakthroughs is unprecedented and emerging technologies are being rapidly developed and converging across numerous fields, including biotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computing.

Rapid advances using existing knowledge, along with new discoveries that cannot be anticipated at this time, will undoubtedly take place. This revolution will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another.

Ontario, with its abundant human and natural resources, its diversified economy, and its stable institutions and political systems, has the current capacity and potential to participate and lead with advances in ‘omics research and their application to the agriculture and agri-food sector.

 

 
Stakeholder Feedback

Stakeholder Feedback

Synthesis Agri-Food Network conducted a study in the fall of 2017, under the direction of Ontario Genomics, with the objective of identifying key areas of opportunity for Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector, as well as barriers to advance the sector, through the application of new technologies.
Assessment Framework

Assessment Framework

To determine priorities going forward, the approach of this report focuses on desired outcomes in areas where genomics innovations can make the most substantial contributions for Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector.
 

Recommendations

 

Increased investment in agriculture and agri-food genomics R&D, coupled with an ongoing commitment to technology development, communications, application, and commercialization, can play an increasingly important part in wealth and job creation in Ontario. This effort can capitalize on Ontario’s diversity in agricultural products, on its innovation and manufacturing capacity, and on its varied, well-educated, and multi-talented workforce.

This report recommends six rich domains for genomics-based research and innovations that build upon identified strengths and opportunities to advance Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector.