An unlikely collaboration between farmers, doctors, agricultural researchers and venture capitalists is helping create a new wave of food products that prevent future health problems.
One person orchestrating this joint effort is John Kelly, executive director of the non-profit MaRS Landing - a provincial organization otherwise known as Medical and Related Science Links to Agricultural Network for Development and Innovation With Guelph.
Guelph is a key component because it is the provincial agricultural centre and home to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs along with numerous agricultural organizations and companies, and the University of Guelph.
"A lot of what I do is connectivity," Kelly says, adding that creating partnerships is key to developing innovative healthy products.
"We have a disconnect now between food and health in the medical community," he says. "Doctors and researchers are keenly interested in finding ways to treat disease, and we're trying to get them to think more about (using food products for) preventing disease."
Dr. Gord Surgeoner, a former plant agriculture professor at the University of Guelph, says the government needs to encourage innovation if it wants to bring the rising provincial health-care budget under control.
"Health care is government's 800-pound gorilla, and it's getting bigger," says Surgeoner, who is president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, an organization that promotes agri-food technology and encourages investment in the sector.
Health care consumes about 50 per cent of the Ontario budget and could increase to 70 per cent, Surgeoner says. When governments put money into health care, it also means the funds are diverted from other needs such as road repairs, day care and education, he adds.
An example of cost savings from healthier food is the addition of folic acid, a synthetic version of folate, to grain products such as white bread, pasta and cornmeal. Folate is normally found in leafy greens, legumes and orange juice.
Since 1998, the Canadian and U.S. governments have required the addition of folic acid to grains.
Since that time, the incidence of neural-tube defects in newborns in Canada has fallen by half, with some conditions, such as spina bifida, falling 75 per cent. Folic acid is especially important during the first four weeks of pregnancy - a time when women may not even know they are pregnant.
Another key reason why health costs need to be managed is that Baby Boomers are becoming Woofers - also known as well off older folk - who are paying attention to their health. The biggest food problem of most Canadians is not a lack of food, but overconsumption, Surgeoner says.
While food such as omega-3 milk and eggs can prevent health problems and medical expenses, they come at a premium price. Omega-3 is also found in fish and some oils such as flax and canola. Omega-3 eggs are a Canadian innovation.
"We're not giving you eggs, we're giving you eggs with health," Surgeoner says.
Neilson Dairy is selling the world's first fresh milk with DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that ends up in milk because dairy cows are fed a unique diet containing DHA. The DHA milk also is a Canadian first that was developed collaboratively by scientists at the universities of Guelph and Alberta.
There are numerous opportunities for the agricultural sector to collaborate with the medical sector on healthy foods, because it is still a new area of the economy.
"Only in the last few years consumers have said health is the key to what they want to purchase," Kelly says.
"The MaRS Landing project is the first step in bringing together outstanding research capabilities from many different sources and ultimately benefiting the public."
The provincial government kicked in $3 million to the project and Kelly says negotiations are under way for federal funding.
Also affiliated with the organization is the MaRS Discovery District in downtown Toronto. Its focus is the $350-million MaRS Centre, whose first phase is slated to open at the corner of College Street and University Avenue this year.
Eventually, the MaRS Centre will be a 130,000-sq.-m convergence complex that bills itself as "the most concentrated biomedical research cluster in North America."
Not all MaRS Landing projects are health-related, although they all have a biological component.
For example, the enviropig - a breed of pig that has been under development for the past seven years at the University of Guelph - produces environment-friendly manure.
Pig manure normally contains an abundance of phosphorus that, when run off the land, pollute the water. Once in streams and lakes, the phosphorus robs the water of oxygen that sustains fish and other aquatic species.
The enviropigs produce manure that has much less phosphorus and is therefore less damaging to the environment.
Kelly says the project is in the testing phase and research is "now close to being submitted to the regulatory authorities," which could bring the breed into commercial use.
"Companies like Weston, Kraft and Maple Leaf are all recognizing the importance of health to the market, and see it as a business opportunity. But it is also a social opportunity," Kelly says.
Most of the companies Kelly deals with, however, are smaller. Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc. in Guelph is a small biotech company that is working to commercialize omega-3 diagnostic testing for humans and omega-3 product analysis for the nutraceutical and functional food industry.
Another example is Quebec-based Lomax Technologies, which has developed a technology to turn soy protein into a substance that has the same consistency as chicken.
It gives people the advantages of a product with the "mouth feel" of meat but the health benefits of soy protein, Kelly says.
The company plans to move to Ontario because of the biotech initiatives in that province, he adds.
The upcoming Agri-Food Innovations Forum, slated for mid-June in Toronto, will also help boost the sector, says Kelly.
The conference will bring together 400 researchers, academics and executives in the food and agriculture sector to talk about innovation in agriculture and food and their impact on human health.
Kelly says he hopes the conference will become an annual event and that this year's gathering will encourage medical researchers to focus their efforts on preventing disease through the use of food.
(Janet Baine can be reached at email@example.com)