Published by Genome Prairie, Genome Pathways is an ongoing series profiling the lives and careers of leading researchers in Canada’s Prairie region. The series launched with a profile of Dr. Stuart Smyth from the University of Saskatchewan.

Dr. Smyth’s journey to his present-day position as a Professor of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the U of S began more than 30 years ago on a family farm near the village of Kennedy (est. population, 216), tucked close to the Manitoba and North Dakota borders in south-east Saskatchewan. Genome Prairie talked to Dr. Smyth about his academic and career journey and his deep interest in social connections and future economic impacts involving genomics.

Genome Prairie: You took a more unusual path to success in academia. You thought you were going to be a farmer?

Dr. Smyth: Yeah. I grew up on a farm near Kennedy, Saskatchewan. We were a mixed farm with cattle and grain. In my youth, I had planned on farming, but back at that time, in the 1980s, interest rates were at 16 or 17 percent. So, to make a go of it, you needed to hold a full-time off-the-farm job to pay the interest on a loan needed to start your own farm. That didn’t appeal to me.

So you decided to go from the farm to the classroom?

I did a Bachelor of Arts in public policy and started my own consulting company in the mid-1990s, working with many start-up biotech companies providing management support and venture capital financing. But then I had an opportunity to do a master’s degree and found I was reasonably skilled as a writer and was driven by a natural curiosity about agriculture. So that master’s turned into a PhD.

And that led the way to eventually doing work with Genome Canada?

Indeed. I worked for many years on Genome Canada-funded projects, which ultimately led to me creating my own faculty position at the University of Saskatchewan. So, I hold the only industry-funded social science research chair in Canada.

What are some of your proudest achievements in the work you’ve done? 

One definitely was removing barriers relating to genomics technologies. Plant breeders recognized barriers to using plant genomic breeding technologies, particularly genome editing. There were a number of regulatory barriers causing frustration. The regulations were creating delays in getting new varieties improved. We got around 100 public and private plant breeders to identify the barriers and missed opportunities from research not being commercialized. We found that one-third of Canadian planet breeders discontinued developing new crop varieties when they self-determined the variety would be regulated as a plant with novel traits (PNT). This meant that from an innovative perspective, Canada’s agricultural innovation pipeline was not functioning efficiently due to the burden of regulation. Our published findings helped industry to inform Health Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada about the cost of regulating gene editing technologies as equivalent to genetically modified technologies. Removing these barriers will definitely bolster the next decade of plant variety research.

Is the lack of understanding of genomics creating delays in advancing genome research?

Very much. My GE3LS project work through Genome Canada provided a sense of the importance of time and the high cost of delay in the release of a new crop variety. That means it’s incredibly important in how you communicate with policymakers, who understand that getting new products to market in a timely manner is important for both the developers and society. You need to present costs that are relatable, which means converting the barriers facing genomics into fiscal impacts. It helps policymakers understand that if new genomics breakthroughs or varieties are coming to market delivering higher yields, genomics research needs to be risk-appropriate.

Do you think a lot of work needs to be done to connect with policymakers to better understand genomics?

I think the research that people like myself do is fundamental to them, so when I talk with provincial or federal policymakers, they say they need evidence to quantify the benefits of genomics. So academics such as myself, ag economists, or people studying policy and innovation who work with producers who have the data can provide that evidence. They can act as the bridge between those who hold the knowledge and those who need it and present it in an understandable way. It’s important to remember that policymakers must ultimately answer up the ladder to elected officials in Legislatures and Parliaments.

Do you think investing in advanced research like Genomics is important?

Yes, absolutely. No question. My concern is that, as a nation, we’re underinvesting in research like genomics. When I look at recent agreements like the recently announced Global Biodiversity Framework negotiated in Montreal in 2022, it called for a wide range of strategies to support biodiversity. Agriculture has an impact on biodiversity because food production impacts the environment. So, how can we then better identify technologies that will mitigate impacts from food production? What’s going to drive that is genomics research. We need to be investing more money across the board, not just in bulk commodity crops like wheat, soybeans, canola, etc.; we need to ensure that livestock have an opportunity to get into the market via gene editing.

Many tremendous innovations are happening, but they still require genomics funding. For example, there’s interesting research in Illinois using gene editing to increase plant photosynthesis. This could lead to more carbon sequestration. Think about the possibilities. If we integrated this technology into forestry, our national forests could help Canada further reduce GHG outputs.

Of course, a lot of these breakthroughs won’t be possible without investing in research, is that fair to say? 

Absolutely. The biggest challenge Canada faces is at a global level; we’re a small market. We have a very highly educated and knowledgeable workforce. We’ve also had significant public investments, producing cutting-edge genomics research over the last 20 years. But much of this required partnerships between public sector researchers and private sector technology commercialization. Without these public-private partnerships, Canada would have considerably fewer innovative solutions commercialized. Public institutions, universities, and colleges are the enablers of building knowledge capacity.

We need to develop more public-private partnerships where Universities play a role in ensuring genomics technologies can be scaled up and are reliable, and the private sector commercializes and distributes their benefits.

 How do you think genomics can help improve the lives of Canadians?

Two major ways immediately come to mind. As the ability to generate genomic data gets cheaper, I think there will be a fundamental transition in human health over the next 20 years. We will see more specialized diagnostics specific to the individual patient based on their DNA sequence. This will lead to more effective medicines and vaccines.

Secondly, I think we’ll see significant advances in developing functional foods. This means the food of the future could be nutritionally enhanced, which will not only improve the quality of the food chain, but will have dramatic spillover health benefits that will enhance the quality of our lives.

Top Photo: Dr. Stuart Smyth near Saskatoon, ca. 2019.

Thank you to Genome Prairie for submitting the article and photos.

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