Nine Interdisciplinary Challenge Teams (ICTs), a part of Genome Canada’s Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Systems initiative (CSAFS), were announced on Wednesday, September 6. These projects from across Canada are meant to explore innovative and sustainable solutions for Canada’s food chain and agricultural production.
Dr. Jon Bennett (PhD), an associate professor in USask’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources, is the co-lead of one of USask’s projects, with the support of Dr. Sean Asselin (PhD) with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Swift Current Research and Development Centre.
The multi-pronged project spearheaded by Bennett will examine the benefits of species and genetic diversity in Canadian grasslands – more specifically the non-market benefits of integrating native plant species into pastureland used by agricultural producers.
“The idea is that native plants are a much more diverse group of plants than we currently use in forage systems for livestock, and they’ve got a lot of features that aren’t replicated in seeded pasture right now,” Bennett said. “So, if we can find some populations or species that we can use to increase the ecological goods and services provided by these agroecosystems, that is the main thrust of the project.”
Part of the research will also explore carbon sequestration in soils. As Bennett puts it, one of the greatest benefits of grassland systems is carbon storage, so the research team will measure levels of carbon in pastures and in grasslands housing native plant species.
“We’re using a variety of genomic techniques to identify the microbes associated with high carbon or low carbon environments,” he said.
Along with experts from AAFC and at the University of Manitoba, Bennett is working with researchers from across USask to further the project.
Dr. Patrick Lloyd-Smith (PhD) and Dr. Sean Prager (PhD) with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources are both involved with the project, with Prager’s work focused on the habitation of beneficial insects in pasture-use grasslands and Lloyd-Smith helping develop economic models to measure the impacts and perceived value of bringing in native plant species.
Dr. Seok-Bum Ko (PhD) with the College of Engineering is also involved, developing artificial intelligence models to better predict carbon storage in soil using the data gathered during the course of the project.
Bennett lauded the diverse team assembled to further this research, and credited Genome Canada for helping provide the funding and support to advance this important area of agricultural research.
“(The funding) is fantastic,” he said. “It’s really let me bring in experts to work with us … I’m looking forward to working with everyone on the team. There’s no way we would have been able to put this together without Genome Canada’s support.”
Other agencies supporting this project include the AAFC, Ducks Unlimited, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Saskatchewan Association of Watersheds, the Meewasin Valley Authority, the Agriculture Development Fund (ADF), and the Canadian Hub for Applied Research (CHASR).
The announcement of the ICTs on Wednesday represented a nearly $70 million dollar research investment, with approximately $27 million coming from the Government of Canada and nearly $42 million from other funding partners.
The second ICT at USask is noted below:
ACTIVATing genomics to accelerate climate-smart crop delivery
Project leaders: Dr. Kirstin Bett (PhD) and Dr. Curtis Pozniak (PhD), College of Agriculture and Bioresources.