University of Saskatchewan

Designing Crops for Global Food Security

Global food security is one of the 21st century’s biggest challenges. To feed a rapidly growing world, farmers will need to grow more food over the next 50 years than has cumulatively been grown since humankind emerged.

Boosting food production to this level is a daunting challenge. It will require transformative crop-development techniques, so that breeders can “design” crops, rather than only select for desired traits such as yield, disease resistance, and stress tolerance, as farmers have done for the past 10,000 years.

Even though scientists have been assembling the instruction manual—the DNA sequences—for two decades, they cannot yet create “crops by design.”

Working with national and international partners, the University of Saskatchewan’s Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre will fundamentally change the plant-breeding process, and make it possible to develop new varieties with specific desired traits—all at a previously unimaginable speed and scale. Led by the Global Institute for Food Security, the research team will build on the university’s internationally renowned strengths in crop development, imaging technology and high-performance computing. Through a revolutionary “by-design” approach, the team’s innovations will transform plant-breeding.

Multidisciplinary teams of agricultural and nutritional scientists will collaborate with computer scientists, engineers and imaging technologists to use powerful computational informatics and Canada’s only synchrotron and other University of Saskatchewan imaging facilities, to create digital representations of plant phenotypes (agricultural traits).

Data analytics experts will then link these phenotypes to specific genes (DNA sequences) specifying important crop traits. The goal is to digitize plant-breeding through searchable databases that link expanding DNA data with specific, desired traits to improve yields, nutritional properties, sustainability and crop protection. With such a resource, a plant breeder anywhere with internet access could get all the information they need to design a plant suited to their geographic region to improve crop performance, even in the developing world.

This breakthrough science will not only transform our capacity to produce food, but will also lead to commercial spin-offs involving field and aerial sensors (drones), satellite imaging, and big data analytics. It will also lead to developing new technology for acquiring below-ground data. Drawing on legal, policy and economic expertise at the university, and at partnering institutions, the team will also develop policies and strategies to encourage producers around the world to take up the new technologies.

By 2022, the university’s Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre will be a unique resource for plant breeders around the world, bolstering Canada’s agricultural sector, fostering international partnerships, and improving global food security.