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USask’s Curtis Pozniak, director of USask’s Crop Development Centre, says research is more important than ever.supplied

When the Crop Development Centre (CDC) was established at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in 1971, wheat was the predominant crop on the Canadian prairies, and it was piling up in grain elevators due to poor market conditions.

These days, a diverse array of crop varieties developed by CDC dot fields across Canada and around the world, providing new food opportunities and reducing financial risk for farmers. Over the past 50 years, the CDC has delivered more than 500 new crop varieties, and CDC scientists are working to sequence the genomes of varieties of wheat, peas, chickpeas, oats, tepary beans and flaxes.

To further address the challenges of food insecurity, USask partnered with Nutrien and the Government of Saskatchewan in 2012 to found the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), which works with partners to discover, develop and deliver innovative solutions for the production of globally sustainable food.

It’s no easy task; challenges such as climate change and limited resources disrupt food systems. Innovative food security strategies are needed, and GIFS is collaborating across the agri-food value chain as a catalyst, to deliver those strategies in a manner that is sustainable.

Researchers at both the CDC and GIFS at USask have played key roles in international consortia that sequenced the genomes of bread wheat and durum wheat, and, in November, an international effort led by researchers at the CDC published the sequenced genomes for 15 additional wheat varieties. This work enables breeding teams to more quickly identify key genes for important traits such as improved yield and pest resistance.

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The work of the CDC and GIFS is even more important now that COVID-19 has impacted supply chains and further threatened global food systems.

CDC director Curtis Pozniak says the genome sequencing has ushered in “a new era for wheat discovery and breeding” and will help farmers worldwide meet future food demands and lessen food insecurity.

“These happenings have led to GIFS being even more relevant today than when it was first established,” says CEO Steven Webb.

In 2021, GIFS officially launched its Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory (OPAL). The state-of-the-art facility is one of the first in the world to combine the digital data analysis of plant, animal and microbial genes and traits with the latest precision agriculture technologies (agtech) including GPS, unmanned aerial vehicles, remote aerial imaging of plants and in-field environmental monitoring. The goal is to improve crop yield, profitability and sustainability for agriculture and agri-food.

OPAL’s detailed analyses will ensure crops receive the right amount of water, fertilizer and pesticide at the right times to maximize productivity and yields while reducing waste. Its genetic sequencing, bioinformatics and field imaging capabilities are also helping link genotypes to plant traits. This will support breeding programs and help them accelerate their response to climate change. OPAL equipment can provide a complete profile of up to 3,000 plant samples a day and is so versatile that it can analyze virtually any genetic material on a large scale.

OPAL brings to academia, government and industry the cutting-edge technologies being developed through the Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre (P2IRC), a digital agricultural research centre funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) and managed by GIFS on behalf of USask.

P2IRC is fully interdisciplinary, involving engineers, computer scientists, physicists, biologists, plant breeders and social scientists. Together, this team of scientists from USask, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council of Canada and industry will ensure the new tools and technologies are effective and will be adopted by researchers and farmers across the world.

Dr. Webb feels optimistic about the ability of USask and GIFS to improve access to safe and nutritious food around the world at a time when it’s needed most.

“We can’t do it alone, but by connecting all stakeholders and working together, we can indeed help build sustainable food security – here in Saskatchewan, in Canada and across the world,” he says.

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