Agriculture scientist earns prestigious distinction

Dr. Yantai Gan examines a lentil field in southwest Saskatchewan.

A senior research scientist at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre has been elected to become a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of Canada (RSC) in the Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Yantai Gan has been working in Swift Current as a scientist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada since 1994.

“It's wonderful, it feels so great,” he said. “This is one of the highest recognitions an individual research scientist can achieve.”

Election as a RSC fellow serves as recognition of individual achievement, but he felt his selection is relevant on a broader level.

“It is also a recognition for agricultural research and what we can do for Canadian agriculture and the society as a whole,” he said.

He has already received several awards and recognitions during his career, but this latest honour is something special to him. 

“It's more like a national level, it's not just an individual society,” he said.

He received the fellowship of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada in 1995 and he became a fellow of the Canadian Society of Agronomy in 2009. In 2012 he became a fellow of the Japan Society for Promotion of Science, and he is also a fellow of the Crop Science Society of America (2017) and the American Society of Agronomy ((2018).

There is a rigorous review process to be elected as a RSC fellow. A potential candidate must be nominated by a current RSC fellow, who becomes the primary nominator. There also have to be two secondary nominators, of which one must be a current RSC fellow. Dr. Gan’s three nominators then also had to provide recommendations from five peer scientists.

The RSC reviewed those recommendations, and also reviewed his qualifications and professional achievements. The final step was a vote by current RSC members, and 70 per cent of members have to be in favour for a person to become a fellow.

Dr. Gan considered it an additional honour to be elected by peer scientists, because they are able to appreciate his contribution. The RSC elected 93 individuals to become fellows in 2019 in the Academies of Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, and Science.

The new fellows will be welcomed during the 2019 RSC Excellence and Engagement, which is the organization’s annual general meeting, in Ottawa from Nov. 20-24. Dr. Gan’s induction will take place on Nov. 23, when he will do a five-minute presentation. He will talk about his research, and he wants to highlight a few areas. He wants to refer to the integrated suite of farming technologies that he and his team has developed at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre, and which have been adopted by western Canadian farmers.

“The agriculture in western Canada has shifted from a monocultural system to a more sustainable, more resilient system,” he said. “For example, we started to put pulse crops in the rotation system, because those lentils, peas and chickpeas fix the nitrogen right away from the atmosphere and make that nitrogen available to the plants. So farmers don't have to use too much of the chemical fertilizer to grow crops.”

He also wants to highlight the carbon allocation model that was developed to determine the carbon footprint of field crops.

“My group looked at what is the ratio of each plant's part, like from the grain, the straw, the roots, and how much carbon the different crops can contribute to the soil,” he said.

This model is used by over 50 international bodies and institutions to quantify the carbon that is sequestrated back to the soil by different crops and different crop parts. In the past it was difficult for scientists to estimate how much carbon a crop may contribute to the soil, or to make comparisons between different crops.

“Environment Canada is actually using my model to estimate the greenhouse gas inventory for the country at different soil zones,” he said. “That's quite an impact academically and on policy makers.”

He also hopes there will be enough time during his presentation to talk about the research he did to decouple land productivity and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Farmers use a lot of input to increase yield, but the more input they have, the more greenhouse gas emissions they have from farming,” he said. “What we've been doing is develop a strategy and farming practices to try to increase productivity, but not increasing the greenhouse gas emissions or even decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

These strategies include the use of nitrogen fixing crops to reduce fertilizer use, and the use of more intensive, diversified crop rotation systems to enhance the system's resilience and to reduce risk.

“We're studying the soil microbial communities to look at the soil microbial structure, diversity and the functionality to promote positive feedback to the plants roots,” he said. “So the plants actually grow healthier and quicker by utilizing those beneficial micro-organisms in the soil. It’s a more natural way to promote plants growth and crop yield.”

Dr. Gan’s interest in agricultural science as a career was influenced by his experiences as a child. He grew up on a mixed farm in northwest China.

“It was very poor during the 1980s,” he recalled. “We had no sufficient food. Every day we felt hungry. So during that time, as a very young kid, I felt why can we not make agriculture more productive to feed the people.”

He studied at an agricultural university in China and when he had an opportunity to study abroad, he decided to come to Canada, because it is a big country with a large agricultural sector in western Canada. He completed his master’s and PhD degrees at the University of Manitoba under the guidance of the influential agronomist and researcher, Dr. Elmer Stobbe, who did pioneer research on zero tillage.

Dr. Gan wanted to continue his career in western Canada after the completion of his studies in 1994, and his application to work as a scientist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Swift Current was successful.

“I decided to do agricultural research from a very young age,” he said. “I just think the research should be advanced so we can do lots of good work to produce more food for hungry people. Initially from my own family, but later on I learned not just our family, but lots of areas in the world need the food. So the inspiration carried me to do the research. Looking back, I think I made just the best decision to pursue this career.”

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