Planting seeds for the future

minister with others

On April 3, 2018, Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, Lawrence MacAulay, was joined by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Centre for Plant Health researchers, staff and partners in Sidney, British Columbia, to announce an $80 million investment to replace the Centre. This was a commitment made by the Government of Canada in Budget 2017, and is a reflection of increasing investment in science and innovation. This world-class plant health research facility is being developed in collaboration with industry, provincial governments and academic partners and will be used as a space to research and share innovative science that supports plant health. It will provide the Centre’s scientists and partners with state-of-the-art facilities to advance plant science. Having the right tools is essential to partnering on new ideas and opportunities focusing on improved DNA sequencing – technology that will help us identify plant diseases more quickly and accurately than ever before.

The Centre for Plant Health’s mission has been to protect Canada’s natural resources and support innovation in Canadian agriculture. In its next evolution, its vision will expand to a greater scale that supports the Government’s goal for Canadian agricultural exports to reach $75 billion by 2025.

As the Centre builds for the future, we take a look at its past.

Background

The Centre for Plant Health first opened in 1912 as the Saanichton Experimental Station. The prime benefit of the location was its suitability as a quarantine site. Its isolation from major commercial production areas helped prevent the possible spread of infection, disease and viruses. Moreover, its location on Vancouver Island offers a climate suited to the cultivation of diverse fruit crops and ornamental plants. Another factor is the absence of many insects and other organisms that can transmit viruses and wild virus hosts.

In 1965, the Saanichton Experimental Station became the Saanichton Research Station, and it was at this time that it became the only post-entry plant quarantine program in Canada — a mandate it still holds today. The program provides protection to Canada’s agricultural industry from the disease risks of imported plant material.  This role established the Saanichton Research Station as an integral part of Canada’s national plant health program.

In addition to its quarantine function, the Station was active in preventing and responding to outbreaks. Golden nematode, a roundworm that can devastate potato crops, was discovered in the area in 1965. It does not pose a risk to human health, but can reduce crop yields by up to 80 percent if left unmanaged. After decades of quarantines, intensive fumigations and testing, potato and related crops were banned from the area in 1982, leaving many farms at risk. Thanks to earlier work of the researchers, they advised on alternative crops for farmers affected by the ban.

The late 1970s saw growth between the federally run Saanichton Research and Plant Quarantine Station and industry partners. The laboratory worked with the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture to develop biological control agents for greenhouses. After launching a joint pilot program in 1978, British Columbia’s farmers became the first in North America to have large-scale commercial biological control of spider mites in greenhouses. This led to the formation of Applied Bio-Nomics Ltd in 1980, a Canadian company and world leader in the introduction and implementation of biological pest controls. Biological controls are a large component of the integrated pest management systems in greenhouses and in the field, and offer less need for pesticides to control unwanted pests. Many pests become resistant to pesticides when used too often, and this does not happen with biological controls.

By 1980 the Station was renamed the Saanichton Research and Plant Quarantine Station to reflect its role. Over time, the scientists developed solutions for the detection and elimination of plant viruses, including economically impactful pathogens such as Plum pox virus.  The diagnostic testing unit continues to be involved in testing for many viruses through national surveys.

The Saanichton Research and Plant Quarantine Station was placed under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 1997 and was renamed the Centre for Plant Health. The Centre also began using genetic testing to detect viruses. The use of polymerase chain reaction testing allows scientists to amplify and copy the genetic material from viruses for closer analysis. This revolutionized detecting plant diseases by offering testing that is considered by many to be more accurate than previous methods. The Centre for Plant Health is also an accredited laboratory and diagnostic testing centre for imports and exports using internationally recognized methods. It is also recognized internationally for its expertise in post-entry quarantine.  Many members of the Centre’s team are recognized as international experts by plant protection standard setting bodies.

Today, the Centre for Plant Health continues to explore genomics by investigating modern approaches, such as next generation sequencing, technology that can sequence billions of DNA strands in parallel, detecting multiple diseases from multiple plant samples in one test. Genomics provides greater insight into plant diseases that can devastate crops and livelihoods. This work is focused on tree fruit, grapevines and small fruit that contribute to the $1.03 billion Canadian fruit industry.

From its start as the Saanichton Experimental Station, the facility has featured a small group of scientists and support staff who are committed to overcoming challenges facing Canada’s growers and environment.  The vision for the new Centre for Plant Health will continue this legacy, providing modern facilities and infrastructure to support new generations of scientists and the development of scientific tools, collaboration and expertise to safeguard Canada’s plants as well as the health and economic prosperity of Canadians.