Agriculture, food innovation needs to lead way

Key sector must embrace change to ensure future

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Here we are on the cusp of a new year. The challenges facing food and agriculture have never been so daunting. Yet the opportunities have never loomed so large.

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Here we are on the cusp of a new year. The challenges facing food and agriculture have never been so daunting. Yet the opportunities have never loomed so large.

I can’t remember a time in the 40-plus years that I’ve been writing on these topics when there has been such a sense of urgency — and excitement — to embrace the future amidst an increasingly volatile political, economic and natural environment.

It’s as though the multitude of human, technological and environmental forces disrupting the status quo have converged to lay out a path forward that seems utopian, yet plausible.

It’s not just me saying this.

“We see agriculture as perhaps Canada’s most strategic sector,” says John Stackhouse, senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada. In his current role, Stackhouse leads RBC’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change.

“Canada is not going to be an innovation nation without agriculture and ag innovation leading the way,” he told 500 industry executives at the recent GrowCanada conference.

His team recently collaborated with the BCG Centre for Canada’s Future and the University of Guelph’s Arrell Institute to produce a report on what it will take to get there.

Accomplishing a goal of producing significantly more food while simultaneously aspiring to an agriculture sector that leaves a net-zero carbon footprint won’t just happen on its own. It will require changes to every player and every institution in the system. It will take significantly more investment in research and infrastructure, and a supportive policy framework.

The report zeros in on four key building blocks for a low-emissions highly productive agricultural system: taking steps to cutting emissions from fertilizer, embracing regenerative agriculture to capture more carbon in the soil, using new technology to change how we feed livestock and manage manure, and harnessing new technologies such as artificial intelligence and data science, biotechnology and new gizmos such as drones and sensors.

The biggest change of all will have to be in how the human stakeholders in the food chain think and act. Humans are not very good at adapting their attitudes or behaviour — even if it’s for their own benefit.

Farmers across the country have taken a hard line against federal government initiatives to reduce emissions from fertilizer, even when taxpayer dollars are attached to help make it happen. They’ve also been slow to adopt practices such as soil testing and variable-rate application techniques that can improve their fertilizer use efficiency.

Feed additives and anaerobic digesters that can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and manure are expensive to employ. The payback takes years. That’s a risk farmers starting out or nearing retirement can’t afford.

Consumers continue to be squeamish about biotechnology and fickle about other technologies that “mess” with their food. Our behaviour around food consumption makes us the single biggest source of waste in the system.

Private investments in Canadian agricultural innovations lag well behind its competitors. Money that is flowing into research and development is targeted at innovations that won’t take us where we need to go.

“Globally, over half of private investment in ag tech in 2021 was in sustainable practices. But in Canada, most investments are focused on digitization and automation — technology designed with productivity, not sustainability, in mind,” the report said.

The report also questions whether Canada is doing enough to protect its own food security with its continued reliance on imported fresh produce from regions vulnerable to climate change, instead of investing in the “controlled environment” systems or vertical farms to boost domestic supplies.

If these pundits are right, Canada can lead the world in developing a highly productive agricultural system that is resilient in the face of climate change, and good to the soil.

“This to us is Canada’s moonshot for the 2020s. This is something that every Canadian can and should get behind, that every government should want to invest in, every innovator and entrepreneur should see an opportunity to lead into,” Stackhouse said.

We have the capacity. The technology is within reach. Do we have the will?

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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