Solving Food Insecurity

How essential are pollinators for global food security?

What implications can the decline of bees have on our day-to-day life?

Ontario Genomics is securing sustainable and resilient food supply chains by supporting bee health, which plays a critical role in biodiversity and contributes to food security.

Improving Bee Health to Secure Sustainable and Resilient Food Security

Bees and other pollinators are widely recognized for their role in food security, sustainable agriculture, environmental health, enhancement of biodiversity and additional integral aspects of sustainable development.

The United Nations warns that 40% of invertebrate pollinators, in particular bees and butterflies, risk global extinction. Nearly 90% of the world’s wild flowering plant species depend entirely on animal pollination, along with more than 75% of the world’s food crops and 35% of global agricultural land. In monetary terms, annual global food production worth between $235 to $577 billion relies on pollinators.

Honeybees are crucial to Canada’s agriculture industry and contribute over $5.5 billion a year to our economy by pollinating valuable Canadian crops. However, the health and survival of honeybees have been declining over the past decade, with Canadian beekeepers losing on average more than a quarter of their colonies each winter.

These dwindling numbers are attributed to numerous natural and human-made crises. The three major culprits responsible for overall bee decline are pests and pathogens, agrochemicals and pesticides, as well as poor nutrition.

Since the causes of honeybee declines are complex, variable over space and time, and often difficult and costly to identify, the task of improving honeybee health and saving populations is arduous. There is an urgent, unmet need for beekeepers and government regulators to rapidly identify the stressors impacting specific populations before they can make management and policy changes to improve honeybee health.

Currently, the only option is to use post-mortem analysis to test for the presence of a few known pathogens or toxins in dead colonies. These tests are often expensive, time-consuming, and provide an incomplete picture of the stressors affecting bee health. Therefore, many beekeepers prefer to rely on their own experience to determine how to treat affected hives.

Ontario Genomics is collaborating with Genome British Columbia and Genome Canada to fund a $10M honeybee health project co-led by Dr. Amro Zayed of York University and Dr. Leonard Foster of the Michael Smith Laboratories, University of British Columbia. This research team is looking to modernize the industry by delivering a diagnostic tool to quickly assess honeybee health in living colonies that would allow loss-mitigating strategies to be efficiently implemented.

The researchers will use genomic tools to develop BeeCSI – a new health assessment and diagnosis platform powered by stressor-specific markers. This platform will allow for the identification of stressors affecting a colony, not by searching for the stressors themselves, but by looking for specific genomic signatures of stress in the honeybee called biomarkers. The biomarker approach has a lot of potential for quickly screening stressors affecting honeybees before colonies decline.

“We are using omics to ‘see the unseen’ stressors that are affecting the health of honeybee colonies, and this knowledge will allow beekeepers to quickly enact appropriate management strategies before colonies collapse.”
–Dr. Amro Zayed, Project Lead, York University

By the end of the project, the researchers envision a system where beekeepers can send their samples for biomarker testing and receive a report with both a health assessment and information on the most effective management strategies, which can then be applied in the field to improve the health of their colonies.

Working collaboratively with beekeepers, industry technology-transfer teams, and diagnostic labs, in consultation with federal and provincial regulatory entities, this team will ensure that the tools are implemented and accessible to the beekeeping industry.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient. With genomics research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of provincial and federal initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, Ontario Genomics is working with numerous institutions and leaders around Ontario, Canada, and the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Our team at Ontario Genomics is proud to continue to help build Ontario’s genomics infrastructure supporting food security. Ontario Genomics is committed to creating industry-led partnerships that commercialize made-in-Ontario technologies that fight food insecurity and generate jobs in every corner of the province. With the right strategy, right partnerships, and right support from the government, we can build better and more sustainable food supply solutions that protect the lives and livelihoods of Ontarians for generations to come.

All Funded Projects 2021-2022 

Congratulations to all our other successful project leaders.