In a recent report by the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) at the University of Guelph, the Ontario agri-food industry churns out over 200 commodities and $33 billion annually, making it the country’s largest food processing industry.
“In terms of utilization of biotech, Canada is one of the leaders,” says Peter Pauls, professor and chair of the Department of Plant Agriculture at OAC.
Pauls explains that most crops labelled as genetically modified organisms (GMO), or “transgenic crops” to be technical, are products of plant transformation'moving genes from other organisms into crops.
“Particularly, our major crops in Canada,” he says. “So, corn, soybean, and canola'all are mostly genetically modified crops, so they would have come from that kind of work. In terms of percentage, 80 per cent of canola is GMO and well over 50 per cent of corn and soybean that you see in Ontario are GMO crops.”
Biotechnology in agriculture has been used to modify traits in popular crops to make them more herbicide- and insect-resistant, leading to a decrease in the use of sprays.
“The insecticides are basically built into the plant. You don’t have to spray, so it has its own defense built-in against the insects.”
Over the last decade or so, biotech has also helped mechanize the process of farming, allowing a smaller workforce to be more productive.
“It’s also allowed things like less tillage to be used so that soil degradation and run-off is minimized,” adds Pauls.
In all fairness, he says, the societal concern about the use of GMOs'in some cases informed in some cases not-so-informed'contributes to the progress that biotech has and can make.
“Regulatory approval of new genetically modified crops is quite stringent, and it takes about a decade and $100 million to deregulate one new transgenic crop. That’s the hurdle.”
Future research is focusing on modifying traits to help crops flourish with lesser amounts of fertilizer, water, and contain higher levels of nutrients.
At OAC, students are taking part in cutting-edge research. All graduate programs are thesis-based. Students do a hands-on major research project and take courses enhancing their knowledge in the area of genetics and biotechnology.
“We also have a few students in a particular program supported by the Ontario government where they have a job placement for a period of a semester,” says Pauls.
Graduates work for the federal government at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the regulatory agency for biotech products. Students also work at the provincial level and with smaller organizations such as commodity groups.
Along with technical knowledge in biotech, the OAC report says that companies look for a number of soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and practicality in students that will help them successfully become a part of an organization.
“Our graduating students have some great opportunities in some of the seed companies such as Syngenta, Monsanto, De Dell, also banks and trading organizations,” adds Pauls. “If you’re interested in mechanization and computers, there’s a job for you in agriculture. If you’re interested in predicting where prices for commodities are going and trading internationally, there’s a job as well.”