Thursday, September 8, 2016

UG gets record grant of $76.6 million

The University of Guelph has received $76.6 million from the federal government to start a “digital revolution” in food and agriculture.

It’s the largest grant the university has ever received.

The money is for UG’s Food From Thought research project, which the university says in a news release “will use high-tech information systems to help produce enough food for a growing human population while sustaining the Earth’s ecosystems.”

“This will position Canada as a leader in sustainable food production,” said university president Franco Vaccarino.

He said it “will help farmers produce more food on less land using fewer inputs.

“Our faculty, staff and students will have opportunities to participate in innovative discovery and to play a role in tackling one of the world’s greatest challenges: how to sustainably feed our growing population.”

Prof. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research), said “it is not just how much food we produce but also the way we produce it that will be key in the next century.”

New technology and agricultural practices must enhance biodiversity, produce safe, nutritious food, and improve animal welfare and human health, he said.

Geography professor Evan Fraser, scientific director of Food From Thought and director of U of G’s Food Institute, said launching a digital revolution will require improved understanding of the complex interplay between farming practices, the genetic potential of our crops and livestock, and the environment.

“This is essential if we are to realize the potential offered by our emerging ability to collect vast amounts of data and to develop information management systems,” he said.

Some of the pieces of the project are:

  Expanding use of DNA barcoding technology developed at UG to identify food fraud, food-borne ailments and invasive pests, and to improve environmental impact assessments;
  Using “big data” on farms to reduce pesticide use, monitor watershed health and identify crops suited to the effects of climate change; and
  Using information management systems to help track emerging infectious disease threats to livestock and control pathogens in the food supply.

Food From Thought includes partnerships with academic institutions around the globe, numerous government agencies, and industry and innovation centres.

One key partner is IBM Canada, which will be involved in everything from research collaborations to cognitive and data analytics tools and training to secure cloud-based storage.

Taxpayers can only hope the university can use the money, plus a whack of new funding from the province, to restore its position as one of the world's leading agricultural research universities. It has a lot of work to regain that lost status.