Guelph is helping fight global food problems

Global food woes are being called a crisis. Unlike other disasters, these problems didn't sneak up on us.

A chronic food shortfall among the world's poorest people has existed for decades, sending 800 million people to bed hungry every night. Analysts, observers and others say that figure will reach one billion as food costs rise, tied to the skyrocketing price of oil.

Hunger is global. As a journalist, I've seen it in the sprawling slums of Nairobi, Kenya, in the destitute interior of Belize near the Guatemala border, in the struggling Elizabeth Métis Settlement in northeastern Alberta, and on street corners in downtown Detroit.

Today, it's not unusual to walk the streets of any Canadian city and be asked for money for food. For whatever reason –political, social, cultural, agricultural — nowhere is spared from hunger. Global means everywhere, not somewhere else.

The numbers, the expansiveness and the insidiousness of hunger can be discouraging. Suggesting any one entity can conquer hunger is asking too much. Global problems call for global solutions, and researchers everywhere need to chip in.

Locally, Guelph took up the global challenge 130 years ago, when the Ontario Agricultural College was given sole responsibility among the province's universities for food production research. That calling was renewed and enhanced a few weeks ago with a new five-year, $300-million research agreement between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph.

The agreement gives the university the scope to be exactly what everyone says is needed: a stable, well-resourced entity that can look at the big picture, tackle huge, nagging problems with the appropriate breadth of expertise, and be there with a dependable crew when new problems come along.

And that's why, when opinion-page headlines scream "Guelph should take on food crisis," it's important to realize the university and the ministry are already in step.

When it comes to addressing food problems, it's not necessary to start from Ground Zero. Rather, identify research expertise that already exists, and match it to new global needs. So many of these needs are food related. It's a natural fit.

People might be surprised to know how much has already been developed at Guelph, and how these developments help farmers feed Canada and the rest of the world.

You've heard about the famous Yukon Gold potato and DHA-enhanced milk. But there's also dozens of varieties of soybeans, wheat and corn, as well as asparagus, oats, peaches and berries, to name a few, that have been developed at Guelph, along with enhanced animal genetics, disease understanding and surveillance, food safety measures, rural development assistance, and on and on.

Most of this research was supported to some extent by the province. And there's much, much more that's taken place. A great deal of it has focused on helping farmers be as efficient as possible, to help keep food prices in check.

Those prices are now inching forward. Food costs in Canada were up 1.2 per cent in April, compared to the same time last year. That's not cause for panic, but given the way oil prices are rising unbridled, it's concerning.

Feeding the world goes hand in hand with maintaining biodiversity. That's a role for researchers, for farmers and for taxpayers. In recognizing the International Day for Biological Diversity Thursday, the Paris-based International Federation of Agricultural Producers called farmers willing participants in protecting the environment and enhancing biodiversity.

But in fairness, it says, farmers shouldn't have to bear all the expense of an improved environment. Just like hunger, environmental sustainability requires a united effort and stable research infrastructure to address it.

With the research agreement between the University of Guelph and the province firmly in place, a system is in place to keep addressing provincial, national and global challenges.

The recent enhancement will make it even more productive. The timing couldn't be better.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.