A year-long search is over for a sustainable-foods guru fit to initiate research that will transform Canada's food producers into global leaders.
Plant and animal scientist Ralph Martin, a Nova Scotia-based academic and director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, has been appointed chair of Sustainable Food Production at the University of Guelph, a post backed by a $3-million grant from Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
Prof. Martin's post at the country's largest agriculture school is the first privately funded academic chair of its kind in Canada. Its creation is part of the grocery giant's foray into bringing positive change to the food system. The move is in line with an increasing global trend: With agriculture research on a well-documented down slope, large food-related companies have begun wading into the science and policy realms to backstop and ignite efforts to ensure the future sustainability of natural resources - and the food business.
"It's all part of the recognition that the private sector has to play a larger role in research on agriculture and food," said Douglas Hedley, executive director of the Canadian Faculties of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine. "Industry cannot get all of what it needs from publicly funded research."
Nor can universities get all they need any more from public funds. Amid rising global food prices in January, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research council, a $1.1-billion agency that finances Canadian university research, wiped food-related studies from its target funding area. Economists and development experts frequently cite a three-year decline in global agriculture research as a driver of the vulnerability many nations are experiencing to food-price shocks. Global agriculture productivity has not kept pace with demand or population growth, a fact some leading economists attribute to widespread hubris after the increase in agricultural productivity in the 20th century known as the Green Revolution.
Governments have not yet recognized the importance of boosting agriculture research as global population numbers creep toward a projected nine billion in 2050.
Speaking at a recent global food security conference at McGill University in Montreal, Rebekah Young, a senior economist with the Canadian Department of Finance, said Canada is badly in need of a new approach to funding innovation in agriculture. However, she underscored that her views were not representative of the department's.
"We have very essential investment in basic agriculture research that needs to happen," she said. "We can't let up on the gas pedal."
Thus, a novel private-sector role in supporting public research - once a sacrosanct realm - is becoming crucial.
"We need to be working much closer with people who are interested in funding what universities want to do," said Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph. "At a time when the public purse is being pulled in many, many directions, I think it's the way of the future for universities."
Prof. Martin will be tasked with uniting researchers, food producers, retailers and policy makers across the country to develop solutions to food system failures, including rampant waste, hunger, and food price dynamics that have generally made healthy food more expensive and less accessible than cheap, processed foods. Over-consumption of the low-cost convenience foods has been linked to conditions such as obesity and diabetes.
"Loblaw stepping up to the plate on this issue ... sends a signal to the government that the private sector really is interested in developing policies for the benefit of all in the long run," he said. "Business will not do well if people are not eating well."
At Loblaw, the feeling is mutual. In addition to the new chair, the company is funding a three-year effort to develop a national food policy with the Conference Board of Canada. In its stores, where 14 million people shop every week, it is implementing one of the most aggressive seafood sustainability policies ever attempted by a retailer. By 2013, about 2,500 products from 250 suppliers will be certified sustainable.
"Our concern is for the future of our food supply and food systems," said Bob Chant, the company's vice-president of corporate affairs. "We think we can be part of the solution."
That same feeling is driving large multinationals deep into the realm of global food and resource policy.
Greg Koch, director of global water stewardship at Coca-Cola Co., is leading the soft drink manufacturer's effort to help more than 80 nations develop sustainable agriculture and water policies.
"Sustainability ... is a business imperative," he said. "Your response as a business cannot just be within the four walls of your direct business."