The University of Lethbridge is making a unique contribution to the Western Canadian economy through innovative research. Working closely with industry leaders, the university is helping Canada become a world leader in safe, nutritious, and sustainably produced food, from farm to table.

As the University of Lethbridge wraps up a hallmark year of 50th anniversary celebrations, the southern Alberta university is planning for its next 50 years, a future where ag research and programming will play a major role.

As a new $280-million science and academic building takes shape on the edge of Lethbridge’s rolling coulees, it’s positioned to be one of the most advanced facilities for science and research in Canada. The university, as part of a consortium of industry partners and other academic institutions, is vying for a slice of $950 million in funding from the federal government for the creation of “superclusters” of innovation, which are designed to encourage economic growth and job creation. Out of nine shortlisted proposals, the University of Lethbridge is an “innovation partner” in two: the Protein Innovations Canada Supercluster and the Smart Agri-food Supercluster.

According to Dr. Erasmus Okine, Vice President (Research), a major focus of the university’s transformational research is focused on increasing agricultural efficiency, reducing environmental impact, and addressing social responsibility. These goals can be summed up in two words: “farming smarter.”

Okine points to research teams involved in water management and weather monitoring, using remote testing technologies, as being instrumental in mitigating the effects of climate change on agriculture. The university is also conducting ground-breaking research on the reduction of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in livestock, and pushing the research envelope as it relates to a world food staple, the potato.

After 15 years of research, working in close collaboration with government researchers, Okine believes it’s possible to reduce methane production by roughly 30 percent through the use of food supplements. He and his team of collaborators recently received federal government funding to test this hypothesis.

In 2016, the U of L appointed Dr. Dmytro Yevtushenko as Research Chair in Potato Science, a new position funded by a consortium of association and industry partners. Potato farming is a $1 billion industry in Alberta — the third-largest potato producer in Canada — where warm summers and cold, disease-killing winters are ideal for cultivating the province’s nearly 200 varieties.

“The potato industry in Alberta is healthy,” says Yevtushenko, pointing to a youth movement that sees the unlimited potential of agriculture as a career choice. “There are many young potato farmers at a time when not many young people around the world are choosing farming as a profession. With potatoes, I’m seeing farmers in their twenties and thirties.”

A new crop of agribusiness professionals will spring from programs like the university’s new major in Agriculture Enterprise Management, which was developed in collaboration with industry stakeholders and will be delivered in partnership with Lethbridge College. The program focuses on the downstream (value-add) rather than upstream (production) side of agriculture and promises to spawn a new stock of agri-entrepreneurs.

It will all come together when the new science and research facility opens in 2019. Designed to break down silos and seed collaboration, “it will allow our many diverse research disciplines to collide,” says Okine, “because it’s at the interface of these disciplines where knowledge is created.”

With its glass exterior and public spaces, the facility will truly be “science on display,” according to Okine. “It will allow the community to see what we’re doing and to take part in some of the activities.” Albertans could reap the harvest of the university’s investment in the future, especially if its bid for supercluster funding comes to fruition.

With 7.6 billion people to feed on the planet, Canada is assuming a lead role in global food production. The University of Lethbridge is positioning itself to help Canadians meet that global demand by farming smarter.