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VOL. 126 | NO. 112 | Thursday, June 9, 2011

Memphis Can Learn From Canada’s Bio Model

By Aisling Maki

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The typical driver probably isn’t aware of how much soy product their car contains. From the color of the seats to the foam in the dashboard to the lining of the trunk, soybean-based materials are along for the daily commute.

That’s not all. Thousands of products, including swimming pool liners, hockey pucks, mattresses, fuel additives and corrosion inhibitors, contain derivatives of the humble soybean, one of Mid-South agriculture’s major crops.

And soybean production is something this region shares with Ontario, Canada, home to Dr. Gord Surgeoner, president of nonprofit Ontario Agri-Food Technologies.

Surgeoner on Tuesday, June 7, delivered a presentation called “Agriculture Beyond Food and Feed” at the Memphis Bioworks Conference Center, 20 Dudley St.

The event was part of a speaker series on the future role of agriculture, hosted by the Mid-South Biobased Trade Association, which works to support the development of the bio-based industry in the Mid-South.

The association’s broad membership includes farmers, seed companies, manufacturers, researchers and small businesses, and a cross-section of those turned out to listen to Surgeoner, a premier expert on the future of farming in global bio-based products and value-added agriculture, share his experiences in Canadian agriculture.

“Dr. Surgeoner offers a unique perspective on the dynamics and requirements for building a bio-based cluster that both benefits and capitalizes on a region’s assets in farming, academia, industry and government,” said Dr. Steven Bares, president and executive director of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, whose AgBioworks initiative works to develop new agricultural technologies and processing to strengthen the region’s bioeconomy. “As we progress in our AgBioworks Regional Initiative, we can learn a lot from the Ontario model.”

Surgeoner said Canada is both the top destination for U.S. agricultural exports and the top supplier of agricultural imports to the U.S.

Better known for its sprawling urban centers and as the nation’s most populous province, Ontario is also Canada’s largest agricultural province and home to about 55,000 farm families, according to recent information from Statistics Canada.

The region’s success lies in the diversity of its products. Ontario ranks among the largest greenhouse producers in North America, and also features wine country, fruit and vegetable farms, livestock feed crops and renewable biofuel crops.

Surgeoner leads Ontario’s Agri-Food Technologies, an organization whose mission, he said, is quite simple.

“To ensure that Ontario Agriculture has access to the latest technologies. … Farmers can choose to use them or not use them, but if we’re going to compete globally, we must have the tools to compete,” Surgeoner said.

He discussed the future of food crops, saying it’s not about producing cheaper food but producing higher quality food, particularly with well-to-do baby boomers being one of the industry’s biggest target markets.

Surgeoner also talked about the importance of producing renewable oils, citing market opportunities for ethanol and other substances.

“The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, nor will the oil age end because we ran out of oil,” he said.

He also said there’s no such thing as waste – it’s instead “an opportunity waiting for a solution,” in reference to things such as organic residues and industrial bioproducts and biochemicals.

Lessons learned in Ontario could prove useful in the area surrounding Memphis, one of the nation’s richest agricultural regions, considered by many to be the epicenter of Southern row-crop agriculture.

Agricenter International, the world’s largest urban farm, is heavily involved in agricultural biotechnology research, which includes growing alternative, renewable crops such as canola, sunflower and switch grass that could be used to produce unique food products, plant-based chemicals and biofuels.

Agricenter works with local AgBio companies such as BioDimensions, a Memphis-based agribusiness development and consulting firm.

“If you look at the way the Agricenter has collaborated across the region with other researchers and farmers and research farms, we have a strong base in Memphis,” Peter Nelson, BioDimensions director of business development and acting director of Memphis AgBioworks, told The Daily News in March. “Agriculture is at the most exciting place it’s been in 100 years, with new technologies, new crops, and a whole world of new markets coming out for bio-based products.”

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