Agriculture today is a multi-billion-dollar industry with huge potential for growth, thanks to advanced research. Dr. Wilf Keller, President and CEO for Ag-West Bio, Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association, talks about why the province is an agricultural innovation leader in the country, as well as the role of Ag-West Bio.

“Because agriculture and food is so important to the economic health of Saskatchewan, the government felt it important to create a non-government entity to promote those interests,” says Keller. “Ag-West Bio was formed in 1989 with the goal of advocating for science and new technologies, while serving as a catalyst to build the agriculture sector in the province.”

Since the 1980s, a world-class research cluster has been growing on the University of Saskatchewan campus and the adjacent research park, Innovation Place. The Canadian Light Source, Canada’s only synchrotron facility, is housed here, along with VIDO-InterVac, a level-3 vaccine research centre; the Global Institute for Water Security; and the Global Institute for Food Security. These institutes, along with the many other organizations that make up the cluster, have attracted top scientists from around the world.

Ambitious projects underway

Ag-West Bio is currently monitoring the development of “digital” agriculture. The use of electronic and digital measuring systems, along with artificial intelligence and machine learning, will contribute greatly to the advancement of the agriculture industry in Saskatchewan. “Data collected by satellite imaging, drones, and sensors allow farmers to make informed decisions about soil quality and nutrient and water levels,” says Keller. “Ultimately the ability to make better and quicker decisions enables farmers to save money by operating more efficiently.”

Working closely with the major players in Saskatchewan’s research cluster, including federal research laboratories, producer associations, and private sector organizations, Ag-West Bio continues to look for ways to expand the value of the agriculture industry by moving beyond production. One goal is to develop new ways to process crops, produce new ingredients, and create new food products that will generate new companies and more jobs.

In 2015, Ag-West Bio was part of a group of industry, research, and policy leaders from Canada’s prairie provinces and several northern US states who came together to explore ways to expand the value of the agriculture sector. They determined that the region had untapped potential — ideal climate, industrial infrastructure, breeding and processing research clusters — to support a plant protein industry. The Protein Highway initiative was born. Members from the consortium continue to meet annually.

A related undertaking for Ag-West Bio was active participation in the Protein Industries Canada (PIC) supercluster proposal. PIC is a pan-prairie initiative and includes 60 partners from industry, government, and academia. Through Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the federal government will invest up to $950 million (over five years) to support five superclusters to be engines of economic growth for the country. Success for PIC would also speed up development of the proposed Protein Highway.

Another initiative currently being led by Ag-West Bio is the Diversified Field Crops Cluster (DFCC) proposal to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which draws together commodity groups from seven specialty crops: flax, camelina, canary seed, sunflower, hemp, quinoa and mustard. DFCC would attract funding and help advance research for these high-potential emerging crops.

Ag-West Bio has been a leader in Saskatchewan’s bioeconomy for nearly 30 years. Keller says collaboration has been key to Saskatchewan’s success in agriculture. “The foundation has been set. Ag-West Bio simply brings the right individuals together to build something bigger. Saskatchewan is a powerhouse in agricultural bioscience because people work together. We are proud to be a part of this community.”