On November 1st, Ontario Genomics in partnership with the University of Guelph hosted a panel discussion at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa addressing regulatory policy for agri-food technologies in an era of accelerating innovation. With Ontario Genomics finalizing its Genomics Strategy for Agriculture and Agri-Food, this discussion was particularly timely.
All panelists highlighted the agriculture sector as one of the most exciting areas for economic growth and innovation in Canada, referencing the Barton Report’s recognition of this fact. In particular, genomics and data analytics are identified within that report as key technology drivers that will enable this expected growth. However, the importance of public opinion and regulatory aspects of bringing such technologies to market cannot be underestimated. As panelist Dr. Evan Fraser of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph succinctly stated, “We must work in the social context for any technology”. The panel, with representation from academia, industry, government and the public explored this topic by examining where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.
Dr. Malcom Campbell, VP of Research at the University of Guelph and panel moderator, in his opening remarks painted the picture of farming 50 years ago as pastoral, with a much larger percentage of the population engaged in family farming. This is a critical point as in those days people had a much closer connection to, and a better understanding of, where their food came from.
Fast forwarding to where we are today – agriculture has changed dramatically. It is increasingly industrialized ‘advanced manufacturing’ of food with use of technology, from digital and autonomous vehicles to genomic and molecular technologies. As Evan Fraser put it, the nature of agriculture work has changed with significant impacts on productivity, but also on rural communities. And, as Dr. Tyler Whale, President of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, stated we are farming using only 1% of the data available to us, so this is just the beginning.
Panelist Dr. Michael Lohuis, VP of Research and Innovation at Semex, described the industry today consisting of companies that developed and adopted innovation, while those that failed to uptake innovations like genomic sequencing no longer in business. At the same time, new innovations like gene editing, that can be used to speed up traditional breeding for traits like decreased methane emissions, face regulatory uncertainty, making investment a risky decision. If this isn’t remedied, Canadian companies could be outcompeted in the global marketplace.
Contrasted with increasing technological innovation, Crystal Mackay, President of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, described a society with an increasing urban-rural divide with the consequence that we understand current food production systems very poorly. This makes grasping change even more difficult, as there is no benchmark from which to stand on. This, combined with a lack of investment in public engagement to match research investment, has contributed to public resistance to technologies like GMO.
So where are we going? A few key themes emerged from this panel discussion, including one resounding theme: the need for partnerships to advance this issue. Dr. Pierre Bilodeau, Exec. Director at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), emphasized the regulators’ need for collaboration to improve their ability to use science to inform regulations. Critically, he called for technology developers to engage CFIA early as part of their strategy to help educate and prepare them for innovative new technologies. Dr. Cornelia Kreplin, Executive Director, Sustainable Production and Food Innovation at Alberta Innovates, emphasized the need for collaboration among organizations and to align our competitive advantages, not compete with each other, for the success of Canadian agriculture.
One key partner that was emphasized by all panelists was the public. Crystal Mackay stated the need to give trusted people like scientists and farmers the resources needed for a broader reach with the public in an era of social media and talking points. Likewise, companies recognize the same need for their success. Michael Lohuis referenced author Peter Sandman and the need to understand the factors that help turn risk into public outrage at technologies like GMO and to rebuild that trust by inviting them to not “…trust me, but track me”.
Dr. Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario Genomics, ended the lively Q&A session by asking the panel how we can turn words into action and create the partnerships needed for success. With such a large, diverse sector with complex issues of regulatory and public trust, this is not a simple task. But with the importance of agriculture to our economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and our health it is a question that we’re working hard to answer.
The co-organizers of the discussion would like to thank all panelists for their contributions to the conversation, and look forward to future discourse on this critical topic.
Ihor Boszko, VP of Business Development, Ontario Genomics
Mario Thomas, CEO, Biodiversity Institute of Ontario
Malcom Campbell-VP of Research, University of Guelph (Moderator)
Pierre Bilodeau-Executive Director, Science Branch, Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Evan Fraser-Director, Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph
Cornelia Kreplin-Executive Director, Bio Sector, Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions
Michael Lohuis-Vice-President, Research & Development, Semex Alliance
Crystal Mackay-President, Canadian Centre for Food Integrity
Tyler Whale-President, Ontario Agri-Food Technologies