Expert opinion

Should agricultural innovation focus on taste first?

Will the next (Canadian) agricultural technological revolution focus on yield, or taste?

This question was posed at a February conference for field-vegetable growers in Ontario, Canada. From this author’s perspective, it’s a compelling query – and one that makes a lot of sense if the choice isn’t viewed as a zero-sum game.

Consider more than just yield

According to the speaker posing the question – the leader of a non-profit organisation focused on accelerating technological development in food and agriculture – Canada’s farm and food sector needs to consider more than just yield, stress tolerance, and other production factors to stay both competitive and relevant to market demands.

Indeed, he says “keeping up with the Joneses” in an agri-tech sense means using technology to address processing and consumer needs, not just agronomic issues.

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Bt-corn is being harvested harvested. Bt-corn is a GMO crop that offers growers an alternative to spraying an insecticide. - Photos: ANP
Bt-corn is being harvested harvested. Bt-corn is a GMO crop that offers growers an alternative to spraying an insecticide. - Photos: ANP

Balancing consumer and farmer-oriented innovation

A number of major technologies currently disrupting modern life and industry were detailed. These include genetics, automation and autonomous robotics, small molecules like nano-plastics, clean tech – technology that reduces or eliminates negative environmental impact – as well as data science and artificial intelligence. Of these 5 factors, all of which have some level of agricultural relevance, genetics was identified as taking the top spot.

Why? Because genetic technology is the best tool available to deliver food products oriented around end-user demands.

Roundup Ready grains

The example of Roundup Ready grains was cited. Those products might have had enormous consumer benefits in terms of lowering the price of products (thanks to better crop productivity) but the average non-farming Joe and Jane didn’t see it that way. In a sense, technological advances devised by people who see agricultural products as “commodities” that need to be grown rather than “food” that is consumed does not resonate with most people; given how far removed the vast majority of people are from the farm (in developed countries), this is understandable.

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Roundup Ready soybeans.
Roundup Ready soybeans.

Genetics to help reduce food waste

On the other hand, genetic improvements in nutrition, shelf life, flavour, and other traits would resonate, or have at least have a better chance of doing. One might want to consider possibilities even further afield, like how genetics can help reduce food waste and other major social and environmental issues.

Developing agricultural products with greater longevity, like the non-browning Innate Potato, is an example of something which can reduce waste at the pre-consumer level.

This is all to say genetic technology, controversial as it might be, can and should be used to create products people actually want – in tandem with solving in-field issues experienced by farmers.

Regulatory efficiency

Also touched on was the need for efficient and clear regulatory system. For innovation to succeed, though, regulatory systems need to work in a way that allows access to – and the dissemination of – new technologies. Given the enormous amount of time, money, and energy required to commercialise tech-innovations, clear and consistent pathways are necessary.

Well-respected as Canada’s regulatory system is (as a Canadian I may be biased), currently it’s not the most efficient beast. This is a common criticism, though to illustrate, the speaker detailed how researchers are trying to develop nitrogen-fixing bacteria as fertiliser replacement.

Endophyte bacteria as replacement for nitrogen fertiliser

As part of an international research effort, he says, a Canadian company helped find a way to use endophyte bacteria – organisms that colonise the cells of a plant and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere – as a replacement for nitrogen fertiliser. This research and the field trials involved have been ongoing for many years.

But despite years of testing and the availability of the technology in 33 American states, Canadian plots where the bacteria are being further tested have to be destroyed – according to current regulations.

Canada’s system might be very rigorous, but it’s very slow moving. This, so went the consensus, is a clear issue.

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A combine forager harvests feed corn and loads it onto a dump truck from Fraser Farm in Kanata, Ottawa, Canada.
A combine forager harvests feed corn and loads it onto a dump truck from Fraser Farm in Kanata, Ottawa, Canada.

Change is necessary – from everyone

Regardless of specific technologies, one of the key themes discussed at the conference was change – not just how technology could revolutionise food production, but how social and cultural changes amoung farmers and the general public will affect the success of those technologies.

On the farm side, that means embracing technology, new markets, and ultimately bringing agricultural production from reactive, to predictive – an accurate phrase coined by smarter analysts than I. This might be an uncomfortable process, but it’s necessary for the longevity of most farm businesses.

For the general public, that might mean accepting what technology can actually do for them, and just maybe, paying enough to support everyone in the value chain.

Conversely, what should happen in the political realm is anyone’s guess.

Also read: Stimulating seeds electro-magnetically for better yields?

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