Agricultural Intelligence: Harvesting a Future Where Tradition Meets Tech

Dr. Rickey Yada, Professor and Dean at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Bioenterprise Advisor discusses challenges and opportunities in the Canadian agri-food sector, the integration of technology with traditional methods, the importance of local food systems, and where the future of agriculture can be found – data

Posted: Jan 9, 2024

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Dr. Rickey Yada EN Jan2024

By Tabitha Caswell for Bioenterprise

As we peel back the layers of Dr. Rickey Yada’s storied career, we find a life marked by experiences that underscore the importance of staying curious and open to the unexpected. Pivotal moments in his life appear accidental, yet profound as if the universe conspired to guide Dr. Yada to a future in food. 

Today, as a trusted member of the Science and Innovation Advisory Committee (SIAC) at Bioenterprise Canada, Dr. Yada tells his story and gives his insight into both the challenges and opportunities found within the Canadian food and agriculture sector. Join in as we learn from a leader whose passion for sharing knowledge is as organic as it is impactful. 

Food and Family 

Like the dog-eared pages of a favourite book, Dr. Yada’s story unfolds rich in detail and character. To find the origin of this expert’s fascination with food science, we visit each chapter and step back in time, rewinding through the hallowed halls of academia, past lab experiments and summer jobs, to the heart of his family’s kitchen.

The multi-generational Yada home was a hub of creative culinary activity where days revolved around the steady rhythm of meal preparation. For this large family, food symbolized not only sustenance but a celebration of their Japanese heritage, a ritual that both nourished and bound them tightly together.

Food, quite literally, supported the Yada family in more ways than one. The aisles of his father’s grocery store served as young Rickey’s first classroom in the study of edible delights. Behind the meat counter, a Ukrainian butcher introduced him to the idea of cultural food fusions, and it was there, among the colourful fresh produce, custom cuts of meat, and the diverse selection of prepared and packaged goods, that he learned the foundational elements of food as both a necessity and a luxury. 

This early exposure to the family business imparted lessons in the economics of food, the value of hard work, and the complexities of consumer choices. It wasn’t just about stocking shelves; it was about understanding people’s needs and the significant role food plays in daily life. This backdrop influenced Dr. Yada’s relationship with food, ingraining in him an innate appreciation for the substance that sustains us and a fascination with the science that explains how.

Karmic Crossroads

Dr. Yada’s academic pursuits, although rooted in science, were not originally charted by his interest in food. Intent on creating a different future for himself than his father had, he set his sights on the field of medicine. But the road became rocky when a visceral aversion to his first frog dissection turned him off the thought of becoming a doctor. 

Soon after, and feeling lost, a dated recruitment letter written to Dr. Yada by the Department of Food Science Chair at the University of British Columbia (UBC) resurfaced from the bowels of a bookcase. The discovery of this previously disregarded letter marked a defining moment for him – a fork in the road. 

Upon consideration, Dr. Yada recognized the quiet catalyst that beckoned him to a discipline where chemistry and biochemistry are not abstract concepts, but vibrant, tangible entities that feed the world. Admittedly enticed by a scholarship, he committed to the study of food science. 

Between his third and fourth years of university, he held a summer job at a small, family-run food production facility in Vancouver. There, Dr. Yada applied his talents while learning the business of food manufacturing, eventually arriving at another fork in the road. On the right was an offer to continue working at the company, and on the left was graduate school.  

With each fork leading him closer to his calling, Dr. Yada tuned into his instinct, always willing to explore further. So, at the crossroads, he stepped toward graduate school and then toward professorship, eventually landing in a teaching position with the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph (U of G). 

Dr. Yada spent 30 years at U of G, where he held multiple leadership roles including Chair, Department of Food Science, Assistant Vice President Research, and Canada Research Chair in Food Protein Structure. His contributions and accomplishments were recognized in 2017 with an honorary Doctor of Science degree. 

Since 2014, he’s worked as both Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at UBC while fulfilling a long list of roles with numerous associations, committees, and networks across Canada and beyond. He is not only a SIAC member at Bioenterprise, he’s also a trusted Scientific Advisor to the Board. 

Dr. Yada attributes all the defining moments of his journey to “a bit of karma,” as he reflects nostalgically on what he calls a series of “accidents.” At the same time, he respects and acknowledges the generous support of influential mentors and collaborative associates received along the way. Here, with the wealth of knowledge that he’s accumulated and with a broad view of Canada’s food system, he graciously shares his perspective of it.

The Grand Challenge of Food Security

Dr. Yada reflects on food security in Canada as an evolving challenge, intensified by current, colliding global crises. He says geopolitical strife, climate change, and situations like the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation have pushed food security to the forefront, increasing dependence on food banks. 

The situation has exposed gaps in our food system, presenting opportunities for improvement. But Dr. Yada warns that these opportunities won’t come without a fight, and taking on that fight will be hard. 

He says, “If there was an easy solution, we’d already be doing it. But I know we can. And thankfully, many human beings are wired to take on the fight, like academics and entrepreneurs. As Barack Obama says, ‘Hard things are hard.’ And I’ll follow that up with Obama’s campaign slogan, attributed to Edith Childs, ‘Fired up, ready to go!’ It means we need to be prepared to work hard to overcome difficult obstacles and when a situation comes up, we need to be ready to move on it.”

Amidst the challenges, Dr. Yada sees brilliant examples of progress. He says, “One positive thing for the food sector that has come out of this unrest is innovation. During COVID, especially, what we all recognized was the importance of the local food supply.”

Keeping Food Local

Dr. Yada posits that innovation is crucial for enhancing food security by enabling the preservation of local foods beyond their natural growing seasons. 

“Seasonal limitations place great barriers on our Canadian food system. So, on the food processing side, this has really stimulated some innovative research and technologies that allow us to maintain not only safe food but food that is preserved in its natural-like state for longer periods of time,” he says.

These innovations expand beyond traditional preservation methods like canning and freezing. Modern non-thermal processing methods transcend these practices to enable the extension of a food’s shelf life while maintaining its natural qualities of taste, texture, and appearance. Non-thermal processing includes various techniques unrelated to temperature, like controlling UV light and pressure, and research in this area is promising.

He says that this innovation offers a trifecta of benefits: accessibility to safe, natural-like food products, potentially all year round. Such progress exemplifies how challenges can fuel creativity and lead to alternative strategies for food preservation, expanding the way local commodities are traditionally consumed.

Dr. Yada highlights the work in non-thermal preservation at UBC, where a new innovation centre is near completion. 

BC Food and Beverage Innovation Centre at UBC

The new BC Food and Beverage Innovation Centre (FBIC), born from a partnership between UBC’s Faculty of Food and Land Systems and the BC Food Hub Network of the provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Food, has a mission to foster growth in the Canadian food industry through collaborative research and practical support. 

The FBIC is also home to the UBC Endowed Food and Beverage Innovation Professorship, currently held by Dr. Anubhav Pratap-Singh, whose role encompasses leading the new centre, advancing modern processing technology, aiding product innovation, supporting and promoting educational program development, and enhancing research within the BC Food Hub Network. 

Equipped with cutting-edge facilities spanning more than 9,500 gross square feet, the FBIC aims to boost food processing innovation and growth by improving access to technology, food and nutrition scientists, and business services. This network will support industry, communities, and educational institutions. 

The development of this facility is a culmination of the collective effort that is necessary for Canada to reach its full potential as a global leader in food and agriculture.

Mining Canada’s Commodities

Dr. Yada sees Canada as an underutilized powerhouse with the potential to lead internationally. Known for exporting high-quality commodities, Canada has yet to fully capitalize on the value-added aspects of these commodities. 

In comparison, New Zealand has excelled in enhancing the value of its sheep milk and lamb by breaking them down into more lucrative, consumer-friendly products. They sell milk powders, prepared lamb shanks, and other products individually.

“In New Zealand, they’ve made life easier for consumers. The value of the individual, deconstructed products far exceeds that of the sum of its parts. And we have the ability to do that here in Canada with our resources, but we haven’t discovered how to mine the maximum value from our commodities yet,” he says.

Like New Zealand’s sheep, Dr. Yada suggests that Canada could elevate its grains, fruits, and vegetables. Furthermore, he identifies another valuable asset we have yet to mine – our data.

Datamining: The Future of Ag

“The future of agriculture is data,” says Dr. Yada. By this, he means that the key to advancing agriculture lies in the effective use of data. “I don’t think we need to generate any more data. I think we need to figure out what’s in the existing data we already have,” he says. He emphasizes that the wealth of information already collected holds untapped potential for enhancing the quality of our lives in many areas, and one important area is our food system. 

Data mining is the process of discovering anomalies, correlations, and patterns within large datasets to predict outcomes. This process uses machine learning and statistical analysis to dissect data, look at it from different perspectives, and summarize it into useful information. Through careful analysis, this information can be used predictively to foresee trends and possibly prevent issues before they manifest. 

Dr. Yada’s vision for the future of agriculture is one where data is not just collected, but strategically analyzed and applied to improve the sector’s efficiency, output, and sustainability, balancing the benefits against ethical considerations. He adds, “I even question the use of the word future because the impact of this technology is already upon us.”

On the consumer side, we see these impacts now. The power of data and machine learning can predict shopping patterns, allowing companies to be proactive in product development. This ensures businesses stay ahead, delivering what consumers want efficiently. Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven analysis leads to a faster response to market demands, minimizing safety risks and optimizing inventory management to prevent losses from recalls or safety incidents.

On the production side, advancements in AI and machine learning are reshaping agriculture, leading to smart farms and automation. Technologies like autonomous tractors and data-driven harvest timing are becoming more prevalent. For example, at Chudleigh’s Apple Farm in Ontario, optical data is used to determine the optimal harvest time, enhancing yield and quality. Innovations like robotics help mitigate labour shortages and ensure consistent quality and uniformity in food production and preparation. 

The rapid injection of tech into the food and agriculture sector, contrasted by recent dialogue around regenerative farming and food sovereignty movements pushing for a return to traditional methods of farming, might appear to some as two opposing forces. Dr. Yada sheds light on this topic for us.

Balancing Old Ways with New Tech

“From my perspective, I don’t see technology competing with natural, traditional methods. I think they’re complementary rather than opposing one another,” says Dr. Yada, giving two examples.

In the fields, farm equipment like combines could be considered traditional farming tools. We’ve seen the evolution of combines grow from being manually operated to incorporating advanced tech like optic sensors and robotics. This illustrates a symbiosis which results in a higher level of precision for numerous benefits that not only boost efficiency and accuracy but also create opportunities to control and improve soils.

We can see this synergy in food plants as well. Of his recent visit to Sunrise Soya Foods, a leading Canadian tofu producer that has transitioned from labour-intensive processes to full automation, Dr. Yada says, “I was blown away by it. When I was a little boy, my father picked up fresh tofu every Sunday. It was completely hand-made. The beans were soaked and pressed to extract the milk, the coagulants were added by hand, and finally, it was cut and sold. It was a time-intensive process.” 

This shift, while it may reduce manual labour, simultaneously produces a beloved traditional food product while ensuring food safety, consistency, and quality control at the same time. For these reasons, Dr. Yada envisions the integration of traditional methods with emergent technologies not as a rivalry, but as a harmonious partnership. 

In our quest to foster the healthiest soils, produce the healthiest food, restore resources and address climate change, we would be naïve not to capitalize on innovation and technology if this helps to reach our goals. In doing so, Dr. Yada offers encouragement and words of advice.

Lessons from a Leader

For prospective students and entrepreneurs entering the ag-tech space, or others in need of solid words of wisdom, Dr. Yada draws a compelling parallel, speaking to all of us at once. 

“First, comfort, to me, is not a good place. It’s nice when you’re curled up in front of a fire, reading a good book. But if you want to be successful, you should always remain a little bit nervous, a little bit edgy. It’s ok to be nervous. It keeps you on your toes and helps you anticipate potential issues, always thinking ahead. Plan for the unexpected,” says Dr. Yada. 

“Next, the power of networking is invaluable,” he adds, explaining that sometimes you can be so close to a problem that you can’t see the obvious solution to it. Collaboration within groups has a way of teasing out these solutions while strengthening relationships at the same time.

“Also, if you’re standing at the edge of the cliff, you’re too far away from me,” Dr. Yada says, adding, “Yes, there are risks. So don’t be foolish – calculate those risks to the best of your ability and if the benefits outweigh the risks, take the leap! Until you do, you’ll never know the outcome. Even if it isn’t a positive one, you’ll learn something. That leap will reveal opportunities for growth.” 

Dr. Yada holds great respect for entrepreneurs, admiring how they view the world, comparing them to witty comedians and talented artists in the way they separate the extraordinary from the mundane, isolating the uniqueness and potential that others often overlook. 

The ability to perceive and act upon an idea that solves a common problem, he believes, is what sets successful innovators apart. He applauds this trait, circling back to his favourite quote, saying, “Fired up, ready to go! Be ready to move on a good idea. Don’t let it slip by. This is the message I want to leave with everyone.” 

Dr. Yada’s professional narrative is a testament to the serendipitous beauty of life’s unscripted moments. It champions the pursuit of knowledge, yet it is punctuated by the joy found in simple, everyday experiences. His intellect is matched by his warmth, and his achievements are rivalled only by his humility. 

You could say that Dr. Rickey Yada didn’t choose food science on his own, but rather food science chose him. The clear and impactful principles he shares remind us that sometimes the most profound destinations are reached, in his own words, “more by accident than by design.” 

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