Saskatchewan, situated at the centre of Canada's agriculture belt, is home to more than 47% of Canada's suitable land mass available for animal production or farming operations. It has 20% of all farm capital in the country, and consistently leads all other provinces in grain production as the major supplier of Canadian cereal and canola crops for the world market. Prairie farmers have struggled for prosperity in an uncompromising landscape, a climate striking in its extremes, and at great distances from international markets. Yet it is this very dependence on agriculture production that has made Saskatchewan the logical site and Canada's leader in agricultural biotechnology. The history of agricultural achievement in the prairie economy is a story of tenacious adaptation: prairie people making use of science and technology to triumph over the environment and the market.
From its earliest years, Saskatchewan has been a fertile ground of agriculture science. Research farms and the University of Saskatchewan's College of Agriculture have worked to develop new farming techniques and food and feed crops. Ground-breaking research resulted in new hardy wheat varieties such as Marquis and Thatcher, changed the economic prospects of the province, and validated agricultural research as a tool to enhance the rural economy. The 1970s witnessed the real triumph of plant science: Saskatchewan laboratories created an entirely new crop from rapeseed: canola, which is the second most important crop on the prairies. The success of canola meant that many foresaw the possibilities of the emerging science of agriculture biotechnology.
The 1980s were to become years of intense energy for agriculture science in Saskatchewan and Canada. Nationally, science was being identified as the driver of the future economic prosperity; in Saskatchewan, the government introduced a new Department of Science and Technology, with the province's first biotechnology strategy as its showpiece. Emerging was a deep commitment and investment in the province's researchers and scientific infrastructure. Partnerships between levels of government, provincial universities, and provinces played a strong role in advancing the biotechnology agenda. Canada's first technology incubator, Innovation Place, emerged in 1977; that same year, a partnership of the governments of Canada, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, and of private industry established the POS Pilot Plant Corporation.
The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) College of Agriculture was an early leader in agriculture biotechnology through its emphasis on and support for science, research, and extension services. One such outcome in 1975 was the Vaccine Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), which went on to patent one of the world's first biotechnology-based animal vaccines; later, VIDO and the U of S together created Biostar (1983), one of the province's first university biotechnology spin-off companies.
Other key components of Saskatchewan's agriculture biotechnology industry were the National Research Council's (NRC) Plant Biotechnology Institute (PBI) and Agriculture and AgriFood Canada (AAFC). NRC-PBI, along with University of Manitoba and AAFC, developed canola from rapeseed. NRC-PBI took over the national mandate in plant biotechnology in 1983; AAFC moved its research activity to Saskatchewan along with a national mandate for plant research. Both these organizations have led the Canadian plant and agriculture science research agenda. Ag-West Biotech Inc., the first biotechnology industry-government association in Canada, was formed in 1988 as a federal-provincial government-industry partnership; it was charged with expanding biotechnology research and industry in Saskatchewan. Proximity to the field and to research attracted numerous national and multi-national companies to Saskatchewan, and local start-ups as well as university spin-offs blossomed in this environment.
Saskatchewan is home to between 30 and 40% of the Canadian agricultural biotechnology sector: from three companies in 1982, to over 30 in 1999 and 35 in 2002, an estimated 50 companies today are part of this sector. Private and public institutions provide over 400 research and technical positions and 700 supporting jobs in Saskatoon. Total employment in the sector is estimated at between 1,300 and 1,500. Direct product sales have also grown steadily: in 1999 Saskatchewan farmers planted approximately 3.6 million acres of genetically modified canola; today, more than half of the canola grown in Saskatchewan is genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant. A key industry in Canada's innovation program, biotechnology is one of the priority areas identified by the Saskatchewan government. Support for this technology in Saskatchewan has come through investment in infrastructure (Canadian Light Source, VIDO, etc.), in support for industry (R & D Tax Credits), and in agriculture research funding. Over $100 million per year of public and private investment supports science and agricultural research activity, and today over $1 billion is invested in science-based infrastructure.
Quality research excellence is a driving force behind agricultural biotechnology in Saskatchewan. Scientists, the research infrastructure and activities of the U of S, NRC-PBI, and AAFC Saskatoon Research Centre, in combination with the province's public organizations and private industry, have created a world-leading research environment. Expertise exists in basic biotechnology research all the way through to commercial product and company development; most importantly, these activities are carried out in close consultation with farmers, agri-services and agri-industry, and with the public. Ultimately, agriculture biotechnology serves the needs of prairie farmers, adding a valuable option to their production toolbox.