Digital agriculture sector expanding
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Throughout history, the tools we use to cultivate our food have adapted, owing to the creation and adoption of new technologies, from the earliest cultivation of grains using manual tools made of wood and bone, to the Green Revolution in the late 20th century, when industrialization paired with new inputs and crop science to exponentially increase yields and productivity.
Today, Canada’s digital agriculture ecosystem is at the forefront of a nascent movement some are calling a fourth agricultural revolution — one that will be necessary if the world is to feed itself sustainably long into the future.
And yet, the average Canadian’s perception of agriculture still mostly resembles an idyllic view of decades past. The basic components of a standard farm may appear to be the same: crops, fields, livestock, machinery and labour. But many modern-day agricultural businesses are more akin to open-air advanced manufacturing facilities, with their own agronomic analysis and financial and insurance risk advisers.
Canadian organizations and entrepreneurs, many of them located in the Prairies, are recognized as world leaders in digital agriculture and are poised to play a major role in increasing the productivity and sustainability of our agricultural food systems.
Across Canada, producers are harnessing satellite imagery, drones, visual recognition-assisted robotics, autonomous harvesting vehicles and a range of sensors — all continuously feeding data on soil health, pest management, weather conditions and more into cloud-based platforms powered by artificial intelligence that converts data into predictive analytics accessed by farmers and agronomists on their mobile smartphones.
Yet, with a limited number of harvests in their careers, producers need assurance that new technologies will optimize resources and increase productivity and sustainability on their farms.
Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert provides that assurance. The space is unique in Canada as an operating commercial farm and the first broad-acre commercial smart farm in Manitoba dedicated to demonstrating, validating and communicating new technologies to expand technology and education initiatives.
Last October, the Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative (EMILI) — a Winnipeg-based non-profit committed to advancing digital agriculture — announced more than $8 million in new federal and industry funding. Collaborators include Farm Credit Canada, Rutherford Farms, MacDon, Enns Bros, John Deere, Access Credit Union and Manitoba’s post-secondary sector.
This increases opportunities for individuals from non-traditional agricultural backgrounds — such as urban youth, women and Indigenous learners — to access the education, training and work experience needed to achieve the full potential of new digital agriculture tools and technology.
This exposure is vital to meeting the changing needs on Canadian farms.
This isn’t to say there won’t be challenges going forward. In general, there is a need to ensure finance and investment remain steady enough for homegrown Canadian start-ups to reach the commercialization stage before they are bought up or choose to relocate, along with their intellectual property, to a more lucrative environment south of the border. (For example, venture capital deals for ag-tech companies in the United States between 2016 and 2021 exceeded US$21 billion. In Canada, during that same time period they amounted to US$940 million.)
Through the Emergence Initiative, EMILI works with corporate partners to provide financial support, mentorship, and guidance to agri-food entrepreneurs with a focus on supporting and empowering women and Indigenous entrepreneurs. Over the past two years, this initiative has funded over $150,000 to support emerging technologies by Manitoba innovators.
We know that more needs to be done to ensure the full potential of digital agriculture is realized in Canada. As food systems worldwide face mounting challenges that require more resilient and sustainable approaches to agriculture, the digital agriculture sector is on the verge of enormous growth in demand.
After all, “necessity is the mother of invention” — and for Canada’s digital agriculture agtech sector, necessity will also deliver tremendous opportunity.
Jacqueline Keena is managing director at EMILI, and a professional agrologist with degrees in agribusiness and public policy.