GIFS: Advancing global food security to feed a growing world

By 2050, there is expected to be 9.7 billion people living on this planet—two billion more than today’s population. However, more compelling is what this means for agriculture and food supply.

While global population explodes, resources such as land and water are finite, and according to the United Nations (UN), a third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. The implication? The world will need to figure out how to feed its rapidly expanding population more resourcefully. This is the challenge facing researchers in the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

Dr. Steven Webb (PhD) is the chief executive officer of GIFS.

“We are committed to helping build a food-secure world from Saskatchewan-out,” said Dr. Steven Webb (PhD), chief executive officer at GIFS. “This commitment involves us contributing to the province’s economic, environmental and social well-being while combining ingenious science and the brightest minds in a variety of fields, in order to solve some of the world’s most urgent challenges.”

Projections show the global need to significantly increase the amount of food produced to meet growing demand. Add to this the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report that calls for sweeping changes to agricultural practices, and the pressure is palpable.

The verdict? We need innovative ways to tackle the challenge of feeding a growing world, making the most efficient use of finite resources.

GIFS was created to tackle some of these challenges. The public-private partnership is focused on agri-food innovation and conveniently located at USask, in the heart of a massive agriculture biotechnology industry. The province is home to 30 percent of this industry in Canada, and USask alone contains one of the world’s largest clusters for agri-food and bioscience—with centres like the Crop Development Centre, the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS), the Fedoruk Centre, the Canadian Light Source and the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

With a thriving research and development ecosystem involving multiple players with strengths in varied fields, GIFS is well-positioned to tackle food security challenges, through collaboration with diverse partners. But how exactly does GIFS address these challenges?

“There are several components to the food security ecosystem, including producers, institutions, industry and distributors,” said Webb. “GIFS is part of that ecosystem, primarily at the production agriculture end, providing innovative solutions for an accessible, safe, nutritious and reliable food system.”

One such solution is the Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory (OPAL). With funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada and currently in a soft launch, the GIFS-managed initiative is a collaboration between USask, the National Research Council of Canada, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. OPAL will offer genomics and phenomics technologies that analyze crop genes and traits with bioinformatics tools. It is the first laboratory in Canada to provide integrated crop data and precision agriculture technologies to support a wide range of research and commercial stakeholders.

The outcome will be accelerated crop breeding, reduced waste and increased efficiency for agronomists, breeders, producers and other clients.

Global Institute for Food Security researcher Dr. Andrew Sharpe (PhD) with the PromethION high throughput DNA and RNA sequencing device at the University of Saskatchewan. (Photo: Dave Stobbe)

At the helm of OPAL’s operations for GIFS is its director of Genomics and Bioinformatics, Dr. Andrew Sharpe (PhD). A plant molecular geneticist, Sharpe brings extensive experience to help build integrated crop analyses tools to support GIFS and its partners.

“OPAL’s mission is to serve as a hub to help agriculture researchers make discoveries that will lead to better crops using fewer resources such as water, nutrients and plant protection products,” said Sharpe. “It will be a huge enabler for our clients, promoting the efficient use of agricultural resources, while reducing environmental impact.”

Sharpe is also the director of the GIFS-managed Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre (P2IRC). P2IRC was founded in 2015 with $37.2 million awarded to USask by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). USask is the only university in Canada to have been awarded two CFREF-funded programs, with Global Water Futures (managed by GIWS) being the other.

“P2IRC was created to develop innovative technologies to accelerate breeding, leading to new crops that are more resilient to climate change,” said Sharpe. “It’s a truly multidisciplinary program at USask, as we work with researchers from various disciplines, including biology, computer science, engineering and the social sciences.”

Its USask location enables P2IRC to benefit from the unique ecosystem that supports the discovery, development and delivery of new crop varieties. This end-to-end capability and interaction with grower and producer groups is essential to ensure alignment with market need.

“We’re able to combine diverse expertise to develop cross-cutting technologies to help accelerate plant breeding,” said Sharpe. “Using innovation to breed quality crops in less time and with fewer resources will improve the production of safe and nutritious food, without compromising on the environment.”

Now in its second phase, the P2IRC program has led to the creation of a number of innovations, including additional tools for visualizing roots in soil, and for the hyperspectral imaging of crops and soils, providing an additional dimension of data.

Internationally, GIFS works to ensure its research and development solutions are scalable and tailored to local needs. This has led to international development projects with USask colleges and other partners, to improve nutrition and crop yield at the local level. One such project in Bangladesh involved research into fortifying lentils with iron and other micronutrients, led by USask’s Dr. Albert Vandenberg (PhD) and an international team of collaborators.

Factors contributing to food security are varied and complex. For this reason, GIFS proactively partners with social scientists at the start of its projects. Such input is necessary to develop well-rounded, applicable solutions to meet regulatory and market expectations.

“The best solutions need to be embraced by producers to succeed,” said Webb. “For example, zero-tillage is standard practice that enhances the economic and environmental sustainability of western Canadian agriculture, including helping curb erosion. But it took many years after it was introduced before it began to be adopted on a large scale and the benefits seen widely.”

Collaboration is critical to GIFS’ strategy of a solution-oriented approach to research and development.

“We see GIFS as a catalyst of great science,” said Webb. “We can’t work in isolation, as food security solutions must be diverse and all-encompassing. For this reason, GIFS fully embraces its role as a catalyst, complementing and not competing with the great work that’s being done to enhance production agriculture and, by extension, advance food security—here in Saskatchewan and across the world.”

Dr. Andrew Sharpe (PhD) examines plants in the phytotron. (Photo: Dave Conlin)

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