Weston Seeding Stronger Communities

Funded Research


Cultivating Innovations in Ecological Agriculture: Growing EFAO's Farmer-Led Research Program

Grantees: Ms. Alexandra English, Dr. Sarah Hargreaves

Project Description:

Farmer adoption of ecological farming practices – those that conserve water, regenerate soil and biodiversity and reduce energy and chemical inputs – is critical to the production of more nutritious and sustainably-produced foods and the viability of our farms and rural communities. With growing awareness of the importance of soil health and diversified agriculture, farmer knowledge and innovations are both timely and urgently needed in order to create a truly sustainable agriculture.

Farmers’ most trusted source of information is other farmers, but it is risky to turn observational and anecdotal information into practice without rigorous data from working farms. Programs in other parts of the world show that farmer-led research is an effective way to generate knowledge, innovations and on-the-ground action in ecological agriculture, but such programs are lacking in Canada.

To meet this need, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) launched Canada’s first farmer-led research program in 2016 (efao.ca/farmer-led-research). Building off of Practical Farmers of Iowa’s (PFI) highly successful Cooperators’ Program, the goal of this project is to help farmers generate, put into practice and share evidence-based information about ecological farming.

Relevance to the field of food innovation

Farmer-led research is an efficient and effective path to innovation in sustainable food production because it is a bottom-up approach where farmers come up with the research topics that are meaningful to them. This ensures that innovations are relevant and practical for farmers, thereby increasing their chance of successful adoption. Farmer-led research also supports and strengthens a culture that already exists within farming communities: a culture of curiosity that values interpersonal relationships, land stewardship and evidence-based information while also encouraging farmers to share information.

Anticipated outcome

The anticipated outcome of this farmer-led research program is to nurture a culture of curiosity and innovation in ecological agriculture. In turn, information and innovations will spread through the agricultural community and lead to transformative change through greater adoption, and mainstream acceptance, of ecological farming practices that provide more nutritious and sustainably-produced foods.

Production and transfer of essential fatty acids in the ocean

Grantees: Dr. Suzanne Budge, Dr. Emmanuel Devred, Dr. Catherine Johnson

Project Description:

Relevance to food innovation:

All organisms have an absolute requirement for certain long chain omega-3 fatty acids but most animals, including humans, cannot synthesize these essential fatty acids in sufficient amounts to meet their needs and must rely on their food to meet their requirements. Most essential fatty acids in Canadian diets are originally derived from marine phytoplankton and are then transferred up the food chain. However, we know very little about the concentrations and rates of production of these critical nutrients in the ocean. We also do not know how efficiently these nutrients are transferred throughout food webs. Without this knowledge, we are unable to address even the simplest of questions regarding essential fatty acid availability to humans: Are levels of oceanic EFA production and harvest sustainable?


To begin to answer this question, we will follow three distinct lines of research. In our first objective, we will measure production rates of two common species of phytoplankton under different growth conditions to capture the variation in fatty acid production throughout the year. Data from these experiments will be used to validate and further refine an existing algorithm that derives fatty acid production from satellite-derived ocean colour measurements. As a second objective, we will determine the efficiency with which fatty acids are transferred from phytoplankton to copepods, a crucial link in energy transfer between primary producers and planktonic fish. These experiments will provide the first measurements of trophic transfer efficiencies of essential fatty acids in the marine environment. In the third objective, we will combine our validated algorithms with remotely sensed ocean colour data to estimate essential fatty acid production by phytoplankton. We will then apply our trophic transfer efficiencies to those production estimates to make a simple EFA budget for the Northwest Atlantic.


Fisheries quotas and sustainable harvests are calculated only in terms of biomass production. Incorporation of essential fatty acids into models used to define those limits will allow managers to assess fisheries production relative to essential nutrients, a novel approach that will generate estimates that can be compared to estimated concentrations of essential fatty acids in fisheries removals. The approach we propose here can be extrapolated to other systems, allowing estimates of global oceanic essential fatty acid production. This has direct links to food security, both nationally and globally.

Evaluating the dietary protein quality of Canadian pulses to meet human nutrition needs by measuring the metabolic availability of the most limiting amino acids; methionine

Grantees: Dr. Glenda Courtney-Martin, Dr. Rajavel Elango, Dr. Paul B. Pencharz, Dr. Ronald O. Ball, Dr. Christopher Tomlinson

Project Description:

The world’s population will reach 12 billion by this century’s end and nations are being challenged to provide enough safe, nutritious foods for all. Protein in foods is made up of 20 amino acids (AAs) needed for growth and bodily function. Animal protein contains all 20 AAs but its production is “more resource intensive than any other form of food production” and its high saturated fat content is linked to chronic diseases. Plant protein sources like pulses are important alternatives shown to “enhance ecosystem resilience, and improve human health”. However, pulse protein is low in the essential AA methionine which affects protein being made in the body. It is therefore necessary to measure the amount of methionine available to the body from pulse protein so that we can make sure our body’s need for methionine is met when eating pulses. The protein quality (PQ) of pulse proteins have been little studied in humans despite their importance in the diet and their well-recognized positive effects on chronic diseases especially in countries like Canada. In addition, Canada is a world leading producer and exporter of pulses. With the increasing interest in vegetarian diets among Canadians, and recommendations by Health Canada that Canadians consume more plant protein foods, it is necessary to evaluate the PQ of Canadian pulses so that plant protein recommendations is accompanied by knowledge of their quality.

Current methods to study PQ are inaccurate or too invasive to use in humans. We recently developed a minimally invasive stable isotope based state-of-the-art method to assess the quality of proteins in foods. Our method is completely safe, participants need to be on the test diet for one day and only breath samples are collected. Using this method, this project we will directly evaluate, in humans the quality of the protein found in Canadian grown lentils and chick peas.

Our results will allow governing agencies to better assess the amount of protein provide by Canadian pulses to meet the needs of Canadians as well as the world’s population. It will provide the information to help nutrition experts make accurate recommendations on how to get enough plant protein in the diet to maintain health. It would provide a base for promotion and recommendation of pulses as alternative protein sources. Globally, this will help support the Food and Agricultural Organization’s commitment to compile tables on protein quality of foods for worldwide distribution.

Evaluating the impacts of an innovative centrally-procured school food program on student nutrition and the local food economy

Grantees: Dr Jason Gilliland, Dr. Jamie Seabrook, Dr Danielle Battram, Dr. Colleen O’Connor, Dr Paula Dworatzek, Dr. Sarah Woodruff

Project Description:

The Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEAL) at Western University is researching an innovative centrally-procured school food program (CPSFP) of the Ontario Student Nutrition Program (OSNP). The CPSFP will be offered at 30 elementary schools in Southwestern Ontario, providing children with fruit and vegetable snacks each day. Using centralized procurement practices, the program aims to improve the nutritional quality of food being offered through the existing school snack program, to positively impact children’s health and development.

The CPSFP offers an innovative delivery method, providing a dietitian-approved menu of fresh, centrally-procured fruits and vegetables that are brought directly to schools. Unlike traditional models where the nutritional quality and sources of food vary greatly by school, this method offers food of consistent high-nutrient quality, guaranteed to follow the 2016 Student Nutrition Program Guidelines set forth by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

The multidisciplinary research team based out of the HEAL includes investigators from Western, Brescia University College, and the University of Windsor who will conduct rigorous evaluations of the program at various stages of the intervention. Currently, there have been very few formal evaluations of school nutrition programs in Canada, highlighting the need for data-driven investigation and results. Using a rigorous experimental study design with pre and post evaluations, the HEAL team will investigate the CPSFP program and its impact on children’s eating patterns.

The CPSFP program is also innovative in its secondary objective to strengthen the local economy and sustainability of the food system. Most traditional school nutrition programs do not consider the geographic origins of food purchased, while the CPSFP requires a minimum of half of all food to be locally sourced. This central-procurement approach subsequently strengthens the local food economy.

The outcomes of the study intend to provide compelling research to showcase the positive impact of a centrally-procured school food program on children’s eating patterns, food knowledge and health outcomes. Currently, Canada is one of few industrialized countries without a universal school food program. The knowledge gained form this research project will help to influence practice and policy around student nutrition and establish a case for a national school food program.

Social and organizational dimensions of climate change mitigation among Alberta’s grain and beef producers

Grantees: Dr. Debra J. Davidson, Dr. Lianne Lefsrud, Dr. Andreas Hamann

Project Description:

This project will involve the identification of innovative practices in the beef and grain sectors with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and evaluation of the opportunities and barriers associated with the potential upscaling of these practices. Considering the large role played by agriculture in Alberta, reducing emissions from this sector will be key to achieving the goals of Alberta’s new Climate Leadership Plan. To create technologies and practices that can be adopted by farmers to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, Canada established the Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program in 2010. The program created valuable mitigation technologies and carbon accounting tools, but there is virtually no information on whether, why, and how producers choose to switch practices and how organizations influence farm-level decision-making.

Our work on Alberta’s climate mitigation in the grain and beef production sectors will provide important contributions to the understanding of how social and economic factors affect farmer adoption of climate mitigation practices. Doing so will lead to our overall strategic goal: to inform planning and policy development that is designed to enable sector-wide upscaling of innovative mitigation technologies, encouraging more producers to take advantage of carbon credits, and ultimately enhancing the environmental sustainability of agricultural operations in Alberta.

The proposed research will be executed in four stages. First, we will conduct a social media discourse analysis of the climate change debate within the agriculture sector in Alberta. Second, we will conduct a telephone survey of a random sample of grain and livestock producers that will include questions about attitudes and behaviors, an inventory of respondent practices intended to reduce greenhouse gases, and reported barriers and enabling factors confronted in the adoption process. In our third step, a representative sample of 15 of those respondents reporting adoption of greenhouse gas reduction practices in the survey will be invited to participate in personal interviews, to give researchers the opportunity to explore in greater depth the personal, economic, and organizational factors influencing the adoption of innovative practices. Comparative evaluation of the mitigative potential of reported practices will also be conducted. In addition to producers, we will interview a sample of representatives of processor, retail, and related agricultural organizations.