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Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, including Steve Webb, CEO, Global Institute for Food Security, and Angela Bedard-Haughn, dean and professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, are working together with government and industry partners to advance policy and technology solutions from idea to impact.SUPPLIED

From carbon sequestration to drones and precision agriculture – research and development are enabling farmer success and climate change mitigation

Times of uncertainty and upheaval – be it due to war or disease – often serve to bring the necessities of life into focus. And food figures prominently among our basic needs, says Steve Webb, CEO, Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). “In Canada, the awareness of the importance of food security – and sustainable food systems – is the highest it’s ever been in my lifetime.”

Dr. Webb hopes this attention can catalyze support for increasing resilience in food systems. “We believe that agriculture is part of the solution to some of the big global challenges of our time, including climate change and the challenge of feeding a growing population,” he says. “A strong and stable food system has to achieve three things: it needs to be economically and environmentally sustainable and it needs to gain societal acceptance. Accomplishing this requires engagement across the entire value chain, from producers and processors to retailers and consumers.”

As a partnership that brings together government, industry and academia – with the Government of Saskatchewan, Nutrien and USask as founding partners – GIFS takes a collaborative approach to “discover, develop and deliver innovative solutions for sustainable food systems.”

The aim is to provide tools and technologies that can enable farmers to be more resilient while helping to meet Canada’s climate goals; for example, by “harnessing the natural ability of plants and soil to sequester carbon,” says Dr. Webb.

Soil mapping, carbon sequestration

Carbon acts like glue, holding together soil and protecting it from erosion. It also enhances the potential to store and utilize water and nutrients, further boosting the overall function of the soil ecosystem, says Angela Bedard-Haughn, dean and professor in USask’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “There is often this perception that agriculture is a net detriment to our climate, but that’s not the case.”

Research at USask examines the quantity, quality and characteristics of carbon stored in soil, she explains. “We look at how well carbon is physically or chemically protected in the soil as well as the measures that can drive its stabilization, such as conservation tillage, different types of cropping rotations or conversion to perennial cover.”

Implementing management practices that advance nutrient stewardship and reduce climate impact requires an understanding of the factors that drive carbon change, says Dr. Bedard-Haughn. “Not every practice works in every location. There’s a huge variability in terms of soil characteristics across different landscapes.”

Carbon mapping can provide valuable answers, and researchers are applying tools like soil-mapping methodologies, sensing technology, spectroscopy and machine learning to gain measurements of carbon – and projections for its rate of change – in soil.

“Big data can also help to provide information about management history, including crop rotations, inputs and irrigation, and this can provide insights into the best use of land,” she says. “For example, the Prairies make up over 80 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land. About 30 to 40 per cent of that is under managed pasture for forage crops or forage. This is often the best way to support biodiversity and sequester carbon for these specific areas.”

However, the economics of farming are quite complex. Adverse weather, such as droughts or floods, as well as market fluctuations can all affect the financial viability of a farm. Economic constraints can also prevent food producers from exploring alternative land management practices or technology solutions, and Dr. Bedard-Haughn suggests that research can help to improve outcomes by providing evidence-based guidance.

High-tech ‘farm hands’

As an agronomist, Steve Shirtliffe, professor in USask’s Department of Plant Sciences, is looking closely at the factors that influence crop yields. “To accurately model a crop’s growth rate, researchers have to determine the height, volume and size of a plant – and then calculate its growth over time,” he explains. “This can provide plant breeders with information for selecting [suitable] phenotypes.”

For canola, for example, crop yield can be determined by measuring the length and intensity of flowering, says Dr. Shirtliffe. “Before technology tools, this was done by pulling out individual plants and counting their flowers, which was very time-consuming.”

The introduction of drones, also called unoccupied aerial vehicles (UAVs), has helped to advance crop-imaging technology that “accurately detects visual differences in crop growth in a field,” he says. “For example, we can now measure which canola varieties have more intense and longer flowering periods by deploying UAVs. We’re also working with computer science experts to support deep learning, including convolutional neural networks that analyze visual imagery to identify plant organs.”

Tools like satellite imagery are also helpful in addressing hard-to-control weeds, like kochia, which is affecting crop production on the Prairies. Dr. Shirtliffe and his team have developed a methodology for using UAVs to accurately determine where kochia is present – and then use machine-learning models to predict where it is likely to spread.

Crop-imaging technology – combined with topography, soil and land-use data – can enable analyses of multiple variables, all in support of farmers, he says. “We just built an app that allows you to click on any field in Western Canada and find out its crop history over the past two years. By bringing in environmental information, we also developed a simple rule-based prediction where producers can access their risk of certain root diseases. Such tools can help farmers be more precise in their interventions.”

The goal is to “find win-win situations that can help farmers become more profitable while also benefiting society by improving environmental sustainability,” adds Dr. Shirtliffe.

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Steve Shirtliffe, professor in USask’s Department of Plant Sciences, and his team have developed an app that reveals the crop history over the last two years for any field in Western Canada.SUPPLIED

A system’s approach to advancing food security

The environmental impact of food systems doesn’t stop at the farm gate, according to Dr. Bedard-Haughn. “We are looking at questions like: ‘How can we close the loop on food production, including processing and transportation? How can we use as many plant components as possible?’” she says. “If you grow canola, for example, you could crush it nearby to extract the oil. Then you could take the canola meal and use it for feeding animals.”

The ability to look at the whole value chain is one of the strengths of the research and innovation ecosystem at USask, where cross-disciplinary teams and far-reaching partnerships enable researchers to take a system’s approach, says Dr. Webb, who believes that their collective contributions serve to enhance Canada’s capacity for addressing food security at home and globally.

With that aim, GIFS is a founding partner of the National Index on Agri-Food Performance, “where we again look at the three components – economic, environmental and societal – and develop a way to measure how we’re doing in agri-food systems across Canada.

“What you can measure, you can actually improve,” says Dr. Webb. “We owe it to the world to do the right thing: to produce more food in the most environmentally sustainable manner.”

Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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