New products ready to help spark the economy

I'm not celebrating the decline of motor vehicle sales. Real people in our community are hurt by statistics like those reported just last week, which showed overall sales were down in January more than 25 per cent.

General Motors led the way with a 47 per cent drop, with Chrysler down 37 per cent and Ford down 14 per cent.

But think about this: did anyone buy 47 per cent less food last month?

Or 37 per cent less?

Or even 14 per cent less?

Probably not. We can cut back on food to some extent, particularly unhealthy snacks, but not in the same way we can wring another few thousand kilometres out of our cars and trucks, and delay buying a new one for awhile. It's just not possible.

And that fact puts food and agriculture in Ontario in a different, resilient league.

Food and agriculture, intrinsically tied to processing, manufacturing, transportation, food service and retail, have an innate ability to not only endure as economic stabilizers (they've long stood as the number 2 industry in the province, behind the now-beleaguered auto sector) but also to advance as economic engines.

The province says food and agriculture already contributes more than $33 billion to the Ontario economy, and employs about 700,000 people. With some guidance, it's felt the sector can still do more.

Right now, a Guelph-based organization called BioEnterprise, which helps agri-food technology developers get their products to market, has more than 150 companies on a contact roster. The most promising food- and agriculture-based technologies and products among them include plant oils for petroleum replacements, nutraceuticals, and alternative energy.

Dave Smardon is president of BioEnterprise. He knows the companies, and figures as many as 20 per cent of their owners are ready to talk to investors about getting behind further product development and commercialization.

Inventors and entrepreneurs don't need to be convinced agri-food technology has a place in Ontario's future. They've already created it, thanks to the ingrained research culture that envelops agriculture and food in Ontario. Anchoring that forward-thinking environment is the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs' investment in research at the University of Guelph. It helps create an infrastructure of personnel and equipment that can take on the kind of long-term development that produces results and outlasts short-term agendas.

Because of that infrastructure, when problems or opportunities arise, or when the economy goes south, no one has to scramble to find people who can address the situation. For the most part, they're already in place.

But the final step of the discovery process — that is, getting products on shelves and getting technology into the hands of those who can use it — is tough. Management skills such as those found among companies and organizations outside of agriculture, as well as development time (up to five or more years), are needed.

Most startup companies have neither. Generally, they've spent all their intellectual capital in the lab or the workshop. That's where Smardon and Bioenterprise come in, to help nurture budding entrepreneurs and get them in touch with people with money and development expertise.

Guelph MPP Liz Sandals and Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation John Wilkinson visited BioEnterprise at the end of last month to see what all he commotion's about. Premier Dalton McGuinty has stated he wants to support new approaches to stimulate Ontario's economy, and Sandals says he's pumped about greater potential for agriculture and food.

So is she.

"It's really an important part of Ontario's future," she says. "We're coming to realize that while agriculture is key for producing food, we can do a lot to support product development."

BioEnterprise and other organizations in Guelph's new Agri-Technology Commercialization Centre have more opportunity than ever to show Ontario new ways agriculture and food can spark the economy. The province is providing incentive programs and matching funds to help. It looks like the pieces are in place.

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.