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Centre for Building Sustainable Value · Lexi Wright and Alice Mascena

Collaborative innovation for healthy Canadian soil

May 12, 2023

In Canada, only about 7% of the landmass is suitable for agriculture. For agriculture to not only thrive, but be sustained over the long run, the soil on this 7% must be protected. It is easy for intensive agricultural practices to inadvertently deplete the soil. 

This is why the University of Guelph’s Research Innovation Office and Innovation North, part of a constellation of organizations powered by the Ivey Business School, including the Centre for Building Sustainable Value, is seeking to catalyze innovations that seek to sustain, even enhance, soil health in Ontario. 

Sustainable Agri-Food Futures 

Innovation North and the University of Guelph’s Research Innovation Office took on the challenge of gathering diverse stakeholders to develop innovative soil practices during a recent “Sustainable Agri-Food Futures” event. This took place shortly after the launch of Innovation North’s Compass, a tool designed to “innovate the innovation process” through a highly iterative approach guided by one’s ‘North Star.’ The Compass is a framework meant to solve society’s most complex problems by generating novel, actionable ideas.  

The collaborative full-day event brought together farmers, innovators, researchers, and industry associations in the Ontario agri-food sector. In preparation for the event, the Innovation North team ensured that they fully understood soil health and the agricultural practices related to it. They interviewed key stakeholders and reviewed existing research. Soil health directly influences production processes and costs for farmers, as well as crop yields and resilience to environmental stress. Healthy soil is also perceived as a mechanism of carbon capture, which contributes to all organisms and works to fight climate change.  

Using the Innovation North Compass 

Complex problems like this require complex solutions. Innovation North’s Compass helps guide the process of innovating for systems challenges. Throughout the day, the researchers led participants through systems innovation activities and collectively discussed their desired future (or North Star) for soil health. By applying the Compass, these stakeholders identified key challenges and opportunities in soil health management and nurtured potential collaborations. The full-day workshop saw stakeholders use their diverse skill sets and experience to bring innovative ideas to the table. 

Incredible avenues for collaborative innovation around soil health emerged from the process. Some participants intend to build more circularity into production processes. Others hope to conduct clearer and simpler on-farm research, incorporate more data into farming practices, and rethink crop insurance instruments. 

Collaboration for Change 

The participants were asked to identify the ideas that most excited them and those they wanted to contribute and collaborate on.  

Tima Bansal, Founder of Innovation North and Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability, notes that "collaborative innovation is critical to advance progress on soil health. By bringing together the farming communities with researchers and entrepreneurs, I am optimistic that Ontario can lead the world in demonstrating advances in soil health." 

Following the workshop, a strengthened network of key agri-food actors in Ontario will work together to collaborate on the most promising ideas from the workshop. Collaborators may also submit the ideas to the Amplifying Research Impact Fund, funded by Food from Thought, with this year’s call specifically targeting soil health innovation. 

Jessica Bowes of the University of Guelph believes that “today’s complex problems benefit from a systems-level approach. Agriculture is no exception and we were proud to partner on deploying this new approach to seeding innovation projects, starting with soil health.” 

More About the Project 

Food from Thought is a research program at the University of Guelph funded in part by a significant grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. The organization will position Canada as a global leader in the development of innovative solutions that improve both the sustainability and productivity of agricultural production at global, landscape, and micro scales. 

Learn more about the projects the Centre for Building Sustainable Value is taking on in the agri-food sector.