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Work ahead: Building trust and momentum in plant and animal genomics in Canada

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Hello friends of genomics!

I've just returned from several days at the International Plant and Animal Genome (PAG) conference in San Diego. PAG is in its 28th year and attracts more than 3,000 researchers from 60+ countries around the world. These researchers work on agriculture, forestry, fisheries, environment — pretty much anything not human-related. It's a great opportunity to meet researchers, get up to speed on what's happening in a broad swath of science, and to support and celebrate Canadian science! 

A few observations:

  • Genomics is having an enormous impact on research in agriculture and environment, particularly as it relates to climate change. Two big drivers (among many): first, genomics helps to identify genes/alleles that help our essential food crops adapt to a changing climate — resistance to drought, heat, pathogens, etc. Second, genomics significantly shortens breeding cycles, allowing a more rapid response to changing conditions.
  • Big data is getting bigger. And it isn't just that researchers are producing tons of genomic data (they are), there is also increasing diversity of data: phenotypic data, imaging data (from drones or satellites!), sensor data, weather/climate data, and more. New ways of combining this data provides rich new avenues for tackling questions around the interaction of genetics and the environment (G*E), but also poses significant challenges and can become overwhelming.
  • Receptiveness to the social impacts of genomics is highly mixed. It is clear that most researchers are aware of the positive potential impact for their research projects. Not surprisingly, they are excited about the many conceivable benefits they see for health, nutrition, the environment and the economy. Yet, they are frustrated at a public that has varying degrees of skepticism and resistance to new technologies, particularly with respect to agriculture and dreaded “GMOs”. Figuring out how to ensure ongoing trust between science and the public, particularly in agriculture and the environment, is a big thorny question — one we're dealing with at Genome Canada.

Coming out of this conference, I had occasion to reflect on Canada's place in all of this:

  • Canadian scientists are present in this scientific space and are clearly motivated to be global leaders in advancing knowledge and application of genomics to wheat, lentils, sunflowers, forestry, livestock — the list goes on.
  • Canadian outcomes are represented by new Canadian companies that are developing novel applications for plant breeders around the world (as well as leading in cookie design).
  • Canadian researchers enjoy a reputation for being leaders in the regulation of emerging biotech and also for being strong collaborators on international projects.

But given the volume and pace of global activity in this space, I can’t help but worry that we're missing an opportunity to invest more significantly in this emerging science and to take fuller advantage of the opportunities for Canada. Presentations by researchers from the US, the UK and Germany underline the strategic value/necessity these countries see in modernizing their agriculture and natural resources.

Canada has all the “ingredients” to keep pace, now we need to demonstrate that we have the will (and the “recipe”) to do so. There’s work ahead of us. Let’s do this!  

Regards,
Rob Annan
President and CEO
Genome Canada