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Vineland Research and Innovation Centre publish 2022-2023 Innovation Report

According to the Innovation Report, overall, an agri-food workforce shortfall is predicted to reach more than 123,000 jobs by 2029.

December 7, 2022  By Vineland Research and Innovation Centre

(Source: Vineland Research and Innovation Centre)

There’s exciting work being conducted at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (Vineland).

In its 2023-2023 Innovation Report, the research institution talks about different topics including a collaborative approach to automation innovation, finding opportunities in waste and a new case study on speeding up new plant variety development.

“Being able to predict what the future holds would be an amazing skill to have, although obviously, impossible to achieve. However, it is possible to try to steer towards a desired future by understanding the pressures on a sector and defining the possible system interfaces and our responses to them,” says President and CEO, Ian Potter.


A collaborative approach to automation innovation

According to the Innovation Report, overall, an agri-food workforce shortfall is predicted to reach more than 123,000 jobs by 2029, as such the search is on for ways to do more with less. At the same time, labour-intensive horticultural crops increase the cost of labour, often representing 40 to 60 per cent of production costs for growers.

A future major threshold is the development of an autonomous greenhouse vegetable harvesting technology, a challenge embraced by the Vineland Automation team. Initially focused on the advancement of a robotic harvesting system for long English cucumbers, this platform technology is evolving to be applied to other crops such as peppers.

Canada is the world’s fourth largest cucumber exporter at over $320 million annually. The potential for growth in the greenhouse vegetable industry is significant; however, the cost and restricted availability of workers are holding the sector back. Cucumbers are harvested by hand and growers spend approximately $27 million annually just on this labour-intensive task.

“We know there are various companies working on autonomous vegetable harvesting solutions around the world, but most indicators for successful deployment are still four to five years away,” says Hussam Haroun, Director, Automation. “At Vineland, we’ve been able to develop a platform that can beready earlier.”

Vineland’s cucumber harvesting robot is a proof-of-concept solution that moves along rows of plants within the greenhouse. This technology includes a vision system to identify the fruit on the vine, assess ripeness and determine a precise location. It then selects the fruit ready for harvest, cuts it from the plant and places it into a harvest bin utilizing a robotic gripper.

The system has performed well in trials at Vineland’s research greenhouse and through further development, could be adapted to other tasks, such as pruning or applied to other greenhouse crops like peppers, for example.

“We are now looking for one or more partners who can help develop a next stage prototype to pilot in a commercial greenhouse setting,” Haroun says. “We are able to align or integrate our system with other companies in this space when they are ready tocollaborate to bring it to market.”

Vineland’s close ties to the horticultural industry can help automation and robotics companies in other fields map out opportunities in the sector, with validation testing critical to ensuring grower engagement and buy-in.

In 2018, Vineland was named lead agency for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Automation Cluster to address labour costs and availability through automation, artificial intelligence and precision agriculture technologies in the horticultural space.

Finding opportunities in waste

Vineland has put the spotlight on reducing waste and repurposing by-products.

“This is what we call opportunity scoping, where we look at the current market and gaps in that market to identify new business prospects,” says Alexandra Grygorczyk, PhD, Research Scientist, Sensory & Consumer Services. She also adds Vineland explores both food and non-food value-added transformation options including growing substrates and plant biostimulants.

Finding the right opportunities is key for Vineland. When identified, the team undertakes consumer, sensory and market research at all stages of the product development cycle: from a cost-benefit analysis of various value-added options to profiling sensory properties of raw materials or final versions of transformed value-added products.

The fruit and vegetable processing sector is one option for produce that can’t be sold on the fresh market. For instance, very few fresh carrots, potatoes, onions, field tomatoes and apples are wasted since a strong processing market exists.

By comparison, there are virtually no processing opportunities for greenhouse vegetables. All edible tomatoes and cucumbers not meeting fresh market specifications are discarded.

The processing sector also generates large volumes of unavoidable waste in the form of peels, cores or pomace (what is left of the fruit after juice production) with large volumes going into landfills. Diverting this waste by identifying value-added products is one goal of Vineland’s on-going innovation support to the sector.

Grygorczyk notes for instance, that apple pomace has the potential to be repurposed into higher value products, such as thickeners and a source of added fibre. A natural enzyme found in apples can also be used as a gelling agent in sausage or to help in bread production in place of microbial enzymes. Apples contain a lot of pectin, which is already used in some fruit fillings and other products as a thickener.

Finding value in waste isn’t just limited to fruit and vegetable production, however. Grygorczyk and Vineland’s Plant Responses and the Environment team have also looked at waste stream opportunities in non-edible horticulture. In a collaboration with Dr. Yiridoe from Dalhousie University and a commercial nursery, they found that composting culled trees, spent substrate, organic waste and branches presents both financial and non-market benefits for tree nurseries.

That compost can then be re-used in a nursery’s production cycle, where data shows it helps get trees ready for market in four years instead of five or six and has better water holding capacity leading to usage savings of 20,000 gallons of water per acre.

In addition to completing publicly funded projects, Grygorczyk and the Vineland team can help companies directly either identify how they can turn a waste stream into a product or find waste streams that might be suitable for a project idea they have.

Case study: Speeding up new plant variety development

Vineland is shortening the time to discover and bring new plant varieties to market.

Vineland’s proprietary Deep Variant Scanning (DVS) approach is a fast and cost-effective technology allowing plant breeders and seed companies worldwide to speed up the plant breeding process.

According to the study, the spin-off company, Platform Genetics Inc., was launched in 2017 and in the last five years, more than 75 contracts for over 30 crops with more than 30 clients have generated significant revenues, with an excess of 80 per cent of sales originating from clients outside of Canada.

With climate extremes becoming more frequent and the global population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, the agriculture sector is continually looking for new ways to ensure the world has enough nutritious and affordable food.

Through conversations with industry leaders in the vegetable and ornamental sectors, researchers at Vineland realized there was an opportunity to combine new DNA sequencing methods with chemically-induced variation to speed up the identification and development of important new plant traits.

In 2012, Vineland launched the research program Developing Improved Traits for Horticultural Products which complemented traditional breeding and crop selection by developing traits that met specific consumer or grower needs.

The first major breakthrough was the introduction of Deep Variant Scanning, Vineland’s proprietary approach to trait discovery patented in 2016.

DVS uses genomic technologies that are able to sequence millions of DNA molecules at a time and combined with bioinformatics — the science of gathering and interpreting biological information like genetic codes — to identify new plant varieties with improved traits and higher yield or better quality.

Vineland began using this proprietary technology in its own breeding programs, such as developing more flavourful greenhouse tomato-on-the-vine varieties. And to bring this technology to the broader market, Vineland launched Platform Genetics in 2017, a spin-off company offering trait development and genomics services to the global seed industry. It is the exclusive licensee of the DVS technology.

Over the past seven years, approximately $1.5 million CAD has been invested to develop and commercialize the DVS platform. The result is a rapid, cost-effective, powerful and proven technology for discovering rare genetic variants in large plant populations.

Platform Genetics has been involved in projects as diverse as improving pea and soybean varieties to be better suited for processing, developing new oilseed crops for the Canadian Prairies and helping resolve genomics technology intellectual property disputes between seed companies.

Vineland will continue to work closely with Platform Genetics in providing access to research expertise, molecular biology and biochemistry laboratory spaces and equipment, research farm and a state-of-the-art pre-commercial research greenhouse.

To read the full report, please click here.

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