Dr. Karen Churchill
President & CEO, Ag-West Bio
In Saskatchewan, science has always been integral to agriculture. Today, digital and biotechnologies are advancing the sector faster than ever. Partners at Ag-West Bio, Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association, shed light on seven emerging technologies in which this province is leading the way.
“Agriculture has always been smart, but now it’s becoming digital,” says David Yee of PAMI, a research and development organization that focuses on the agricultural industry. “We see a transition happening: machinery is getting smaller and farming will become more efficient. Inputs will become significantly lower, because we’ll be that much more precise.”
At the University of Saskatchewan, Steve Shirtliffe is using drones to identify traits in crops, gathering data that could be useful for breeding programs. “We can quantify the length and intensity of flowering, canopy volume, and even the number of seedheads in a given area,” he says. “We can also identify changes in soil quality over a field.”
Self-driving farm equipment
The first autonomous farm implements are coming out of Saskatchewan. Dot Technology Corp. has developed a “power platform” that can connect to a wide variety of farm implements to work a field — no driver required.
“Agriculture is becoming a big science,” says Dr. Leon Kochian of the Global Institute for Food Security. “It’s truly interdisciplinary across biological, physical, and mathematical sciences.” He has assembled a research team of computer scientists, computational biologists, X-ray physicists, soil microbiologists, and engineers, with the goal of incorporating competitive root traits into plant breeding programs.
Planting multiple crops in the same field takes more planning, but the right combination can mean reduced insect and weed pressure, fewer inputs, and higher yields. Colin Rosengren of Three Farmers says that mixing crops can increase yield by up to 50%. “In the next five years you won’t see anyone mono-cropping chickpeas,” he says. “Flax really reduces the disease pressure.”
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist Dr. Kevin Rozwadowski is using CRISPR-based gene editing in his crop research. “CRISPR allows you to make precise changes at prescribed places in the genome with predictable effects,” he says. “All major crops will benefit from this technology as it speeds the development of certain traits related to disease resistance, drought tolerance, seed quality, flavour profiles, and more.”
At the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre, Dr. Shannon Hood-Niefer says that technologies like fermentation and hydrothermal treatments are expanding possibilities for food products and increasing choices for consumers. Saskatchewan has great skills in value-added agriculture and processing. “It’s time for us to really step up and promote what we can do,” says Dr. Hood-Niefer. “We’re more than just primary production.”