Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals-Agriculture’s Next Wave

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Science and agriculture have been partners for decades. Nowhere has that alliance borne greater progress than in some laboratories here in Manitoba.

Initially, scientific progress in agriculture was restricted to plant and animal breeding. New varieties emerged after years of labourious trial and error. The characteristics desired included early maturity, disease resistance and yield, in the case of crops, and growth rate and hardiness, in the case of livestock. The “Green Revolution” gave agriculture its modern face.

This tradition continues with the advent of genetic engineering. In the new wave of agricultural innovation, scientists combine genetic information from a wide variety of plants to make “designer crops” with many advantages.

The University of Manitoba began as an agricultural college and remains at the forefront of this research. It has now taken a giant leap into the future with the announced construction of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals (RCFFN). The Richardson Foundation and both levels of government are cost-sharing this $25 million facility. It promises to become a centre of excellence, where researchers from many disciplines will work to develop functional and health-enhancing foods and nutraceuticals from oats, wheat, barley, buckwheat, canola, flax, hemp, pulses and animal products.

In the last few years, the health-giving properties of various grains have become public knowledge. Remember the media coverage of the effects of oat bran on cholesterol? A surge in oat consumption, prices, and production followed.

As it turns out, a lot more resides inside those little grains than we thought. The opportunities to mix, match and combine them into “functional foods” Are limitless. It’s the RCFFN’s job to search these out and commercialize them.

According to Kelly Fitzpatrick, the Marketing and Research Development Manager, given demographic trends and the new demand for alternate health remedies make this the right time for such an effort. Fitzpatrick emphasized that the Centre will rely on solid science to develop products that actually work to improve health. “We cannot sell snake oil,” he, “and we must and will ensure that the public interest is served. Also, we need to be based on good science in order to attract investors.”

Fitzpatrick noted that canola could be considered the original “functional food” and its success story is history. “We are now at the same stage with other products that canola was at fifteen years ago,” he added. At the present time, the extraction of known bio-active compounds from flax shows great promise.

What this means for the economies of agricultural regions is frankly anybody’s guess. But it appears that the sky’s the limit. Modern technology, scientific know-how, and the right financing could bring new crops and commodities to rural regions.

This is nothing new. From that first plot of Marquis wheat decades ago to the wonder crops of today, science and research have formed a big part of western agriculture. The Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals is another step on this long journey. Watch this one, folks.

Rural Renaissance Project