'Food From Thought' funds university rethink of what we eat

The human food chain from field to fork will get a rethink and redesign as the University of Guelph implements a $76 million federal grant to fund its Food From Thought initiative, writes Andrew Coppolino.
The FarmBot Genesis is a robot that moves around a small garden bed using tracks on the sides of the box. It can plant seeds, water and perform other basic gardening tasks. (

The University of Guelph has received $76 million from the Federal Government's Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) to support their comprehensive Food From Thought research initiative.

It will use information systems to help the industry produce enough food for a growing human population while sustaining the earth's ecosystems, and will drive a new digital revolution in the agri-food sector, according to Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research) at the university.

"What that means literally is taking millions of terabytes of data and using data analytics to help us better inform what it is that we're doing in moving food from the farm onto people's forks to make sure that the practice is sustainable, safe and healthy," said Campbell. 

Technology and policy applications

With 14 field stations – poultry, swine, dairy, crops and more – the University of Guelph is already collecting a massive amount of agricultural data. The CFREF funding, which is the largest single contribution ever by a federal government to the university, will allow them to intensify their research.

Food From Thought will involve seven academic colleges at the university, involve hundreds of researchers, graduate students, industry and government collaborators, and will have an immediate impact both on the farm and with consumers.

"There are a number of different areas where the scientific agenda from Food From Thought is going to result in real world applications," said Evan Fraser, who teaches geography at University of Guelph and will be the scientific director for Food From Thought, coordinating and integrating the research and overseeing its applications from technology and policy perspectives.

"For instance, we are going to be working with a range of organizations such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to develop tools to help better monitor and control food-borne threats, diseases and problems in the livestock industry.

"We will also produce tools to allow consumers the confidence of what they are buying in terms of authenticating and creating transparency across global food-supply chains."

Fitbits for cows, food authentication 

In the examples cited by Campbell, data is already being collected with radio frequency identification tags and on devices that might be called Fitbits for cattle – accelerometers that wirelessly track animals as they move. When cows head into the milk parlour, real time measurements of the amount and quality of the milk can be captured allowing decisions to be made about the care of the animal and the way the production takes place. 

Food From Thought research that will also be expanded with the CFREF funding is DNA bar-coding, which allows monitoring agencies to use DNA to determine a species and detect food fraud, according to Campbell.

"We've done this authentication at sushi restaurants and discovered that up to 40 per cent of sushi is mislabelled. This isn't deliberately done by the restaurant but by the sushi provider. In 90 per cent of those mislabelling cases, the fish that the restaurant customer was getting was actually of a lower quality."

Farm-to-fork: philosophy meets science

Ultimately, the researchers hope to improve agricultural practices so that we can feed ourselves and have a healthy environment; Fraser says Food From Thought will help us meet those challenges.

"We'll have to cut back on waste. We'll have to be more efficient with inputs such as water and nitrogen and fertilizer. We will have to be eating the kinds of food that are ecologically efficient to produce. That combination of strategies ultimately will allow humanity the flexibility to address climate change while feeding the world's growing population."  

And it its own way, science is closing a circle on the popular philosophy of knowing where your food comes from, noted Campbell. It's not only farm-to-fork, but fork-to-farm.

"How is it that the consumer informs the farmer so that we've got a foodstuff – nourishment – that's appearing on people's plates that fulfills consumer demand for being sustainable, safe, healthy and secure?"

Food From Thought is not merely what might be done, Campbell added, but "how you use the process of discovery to really make a difference with food production."