MBiotech Students Combine Science and Business to Find Solutions for Ontario farmers

Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 11:00am

Students combine science and business to find solutions for Ontario farmers

MBiotech Team
From left: Zoe Yi Zhang, Kavisha Jayasundara, Nadia Lushina and Bahram Behnam Azad

Most students are pleased if their work impresses their lecturers. For students in U of T Mississauga’s Master of Biotechnology program, that’s not enough.

“The goal of our students is not impressing professors or peers with their research. That’s easy,” says Professor Jayson Parker “The difficult part is getting the people who live and breathe the subject matter you’re researching, the industry stakeholders, to notice your work.”

So, when an MBiotech student team studying the Ontario tobacco industry engaged the attention of a tobacco farmers’ association, employees at the provincial agriculture ministry and staff at the Ontario Power Generation Corporation, they knew they were on the right track.
The four-member team (Bahram Azad, Kavisha Jayasundara, Nadia Lushina and Zoe Yi Zhang) were initially investigating transgenic tobacco in which tobacco undergoes a process to increase its nicotine. But, they refocused their research on another, more urgent, issue– the plight of tobacco farmers in Ontario – and set out to find solutions based on science.

“We learned that tobacco farmers in Ontario are in crisis, and we wanted to find a solution for them that would be practical and feasible and would help them now,” says Jayasundara.

The farmers are in a dire financial situation for a number of reasons. Big-name companies are increasingly shifting away from North American growers and procuring lower-priced tobacco from South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, while the legal cigarette consumption in Canada and the United States is decreasing. In addition, government tobacco-control policies in Canada, according to the group Tobacco Farmers in Crisis, have exacerbated the situation and haven’t provided adequate exit strategies for farming families, many of whom are heavily in debt and have invested in equipment specific to their crop.

After fact-finding visits to farmers, the student team set out to find an alternative crop that could be grown in the soil conditions of the tobacco farmland and could be profitable in the short term. They narrowed the possibilities down, then analysed the business potential of each. Though industrial hemp and various ethnic crops had greater potential than other options, switchgrass met the set criteria best,” says Jayasundara.

She explains that an Ontario Power Generation coal plant in Nanticoke, near the tobacco-growing region, is considering using biomass (biological material) as a source of energy to reduce emissions and had even been testing a process using plant material. “If the tobacco farmers could move to growing an energy crop like switchgrass that would be used to provide a renewable fuel source for the nearby plant, then that would be a local solution that could benefit the farmers and their community,” she says.

Though some Ontario farmers had known about the biomass option previously, the students’ conclusions helped to reinforce their intuitive knowledge, says Joe Botscheller of Tobacco Farmers in Crisis. “The analytics the students presented threw a different perspective on the situation,” he says. “A lot of farmers do their work out of passion and are too often expected to give the product of their work away for nothing. So, it was good to see those business analytics, such as break-even points being applied as the starting point for determining the dollar value of farm products.”

Botscheller was one of the industry members who tuned into an online seminar during which the students presented their conclusions and fielded questions. The presentation was part of the AstraZeneca weekly seminar series on biology-related topics that gives students in the MBiotech program, which combines science and business, an opportunity to present their research to an audience beyond the campus. The seminars are broadcast via a live webcast.

The seminar on the plight of the tobacco farmers was a highlight of the fall seminar series, says Parker. “The students were successful in being taken seriously by the stakeholder base and uncovered an issue that is not widely understood or appreciated in Ontario.” 

by Olena Wawryshyn