The last thing Prof. Sylvain Charlebois wants to do is keep his research a secret.
“As a researcher, I feel it is part of my duty to convey some of the knowledge we create to the wider public. We are part of a publicly-funded institution, so we have a responsibility to the public. Yes, it is challenging for any academic to translate for this audience, but it is also exciting.”
Charlebois, newly-appointed associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Management and Economics, has been writing “op-ed” articles for newspapers for over a decade. A piece he had published in the Globe and Mail in the fall, for example, discussed climate change, grain exports and a new world order in food. It concluded: “What is happening to agricultural communities is hardly a crisis but rather a continuing recalibration between supply and demand.”
Charlebois is frequently interviewed in English and French by reporters and broadcasters across Canada about the business of food. While the specific topics may vary ─ he says British Columbia media are usually interested in wine and produce, while Quebec and Ontario reporters ask about poultry, eggs and milk ─ his research encompasses all types of food and agriculture.
Charlebois believes his interest in food systems, safety, policy and distribution makes him an excellent fit for the University of Guelph. He describes Guelph as the “major league” of agricultural research and sees that as an excellent fit for a marketing expert focused on food. “There’s no place that would be more perfect for me.”
And he’s always been attracted to cutting-edge issues. While studying at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Charlebois wrote his doctoral dissertation about the impact of mad cow disease on the Canadian beef industry. “That was one of the most difficult and demanding things I’ve ever done,” he says. “I had to interview cattle farmers watching the family businesses they’d built up over their lifetimes head towards bankruptcy because they couldn’t sell their cattle. In one family, the wife and children had moved eight hours away so that she could get a job and provide some income while the husband continued to look after the cattle.”
Despite the traumatic times, Charlebois says he was impressed by the kindness and generosity of the people he met. “I’d often be invited to stay for lunch, and I’d leave with steaks and homemade bread,” he says. That was his first visit to Saskatchewan, and it obviously made a lasting impression, as he returned to work at the University of Regina.
In 2008 Charlebois became associate dean at the University of Regina’s faculty of business administration. In 2009 he took on the position of associate director at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (University of Regina/University of Saskatchewan), where he introduced and co-ordinated master’s and PhD programs in public policy. He sees this as excellent preparation for his responsibilities at U of G and says he’s happy to start a new chapter in his career at Guelph.
The new chapter will, he promises, involve building solid relationships with the many communities connected with the University. “I am obsessed with relevancy. I want to be relevant to my students, to the business community.” Charlebois says that he emphasizes supporting students in their learning. “It’s not just about enrolment numbers. Students are very important stakeholders in the university community.”
Charlebois says he’s known as a “macro-marketer” and explains that means he is interested in macro-economics and food systems and how these factors affect policy and marketing.
Food safety is another key area of interest. While working at the University of Regina, Charlebois and a team of researchers developed a systemic evaluation of food safety procedures in 17 countries. Canada was fifth (the United Kingdom was first) in their 2008 study. “There were some definite gaps in our food safety practices as compared to some European countries.”
In June 2010, when the second report was printed, Canada placed fourth (tied with the United States). Charlebois says this higher ranking had more to do with some other countries doing less well, rather than Canada making significant improvements. Canada earned lower scores for not having a system that is able to trace food “from farm to fork.”
Charlebois expects to continue work on this project and publish another report later this year.