Can Canada build its own “Silicon Valley for food”?


When you think of Silicon Valley, what comes to mind? Tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates are obvious answers. Inventions like the smartphone come to mind too. But would you ever, in a million years, think of Canada?

Building Canada’s own Silicon Valley of agriculture is the lofty ambition of researchers at the University of Guelph. These scientists—with a little help from government and industry partners—have launched a new initiative called Food From Thought: Agricultural Systems for a Healthy Planet.

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Some are calling it “a turning point in Canada for the next agricultural revolution.”1 The Government of Canada has invested nearly $77 million into the initiative through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund—the largest single federal research investment in the University of Guelph’s history.2 The unprecedented support could make Guelph “the Silicon Valley of food and agriculture”, says Evan Fraser.3

Fraser is the Director of the University of Guelph’s Food Institute and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security. “The next digital revolution is the application of big data analytics to agriculture,” he says. “The same thing happened with the Internet and personalized medicine—now we are applying it to the food system.” Food From Thought aims to connect the digital revolution with the digital-shy world of agriculture.

“The challenge of sustainably feeding the world’s growing population without undermining the environment is one of the big projects of the 21st century,” says Fraser. The goal? “Build an agricultural system that creates more food with less impact on the environment while boosting animal welfare.”

It’s an ambitious agenda—but if anyone can do it, it’s the extraordinary team at the University of Guelph. “Guelph has a 150-year legacy of agriculture research. We have the track record,” Fraser notes.

Food From Thought will be tackling the challenge from every angle. For instance, researchers will study how to reduce antibiotic use in livestock through genetics and management practices.4 Breeding healthier animals from birth, fed on superior diets, means less need for antibiotics.

A major focus of the project will be creating tools to identify problems like pathogens or toxins in food earlier, faster and across the global supply chain.5 One way to do that is through a game-changing, Guelph-developed tech called DNA barcoding. It uses a piece of DNA to accurately identify a species. “When horse meat ended up in burritos, the European Union found out using DNA barcoding,” notes Fraser.

“DNA barcoding will help us push transparency across food chains. Using an isotope analysis we hope to be able to identify where food comes from. In a global food supply chain where consumers want to make sustainable choices—that will be huge.”

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But beyond game-changing innovation, Evan is especially proud that all of it will be born right here in Canada. “I’ve been on farms where the presence of that farm has created nutrients, built up biodiversity, and created social and economic benefits for local communities—all while making a lot of safe and nutritious food. With these tools, we can help the Canadian industry do the good work it’s doing and demonstrate that sustainability to a wide market.”

This investment could be a catalyst for something unprecedented: Canada’s very own Silicon Valley, inventing and innovating towards the next stage in agriculture. If Evan Fraser and the University of Guelph have their way, Canada could be the place where big data entwines with the family farm—bringing new insights to every corner of the globe.