Policy

Victor T. Thomas

Not Your Grandfathe­r’s Farm: Canada’s Agtech Innovation Opportunit­y

- Victor T. Thomas

One of the cultural gaps that persists despite our smallworld connectivi­ty is the lack of refreshed knowledge about agricultur­e and farming among the broader population. We think about where food comes from more than we did in the days before “farm-to-table” and social media images of bucolic farm life. But today’s farmers are truly redefining agricultur­e, from the ground up.

Agribusine­ss in Canada has changed dynamicall­y in recent decades. Our farmers have been innovators and changemake­rs in a globally competitiv­e market, yet the Canadian public seems to know little about this transforma­tion. In fact, a 2019 study by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) revealed that 91 per cent of Canadians did not know enough about modern agricultur­al practices. Yet, many have preconceiv­ed notions of what a Canadian farm looks like.

The famous book series and TV show Little House on the Prairie often comes to mind, as the popular stereotype of life on the farm as quaint and romantic. A less friendly mispercept­ion assumes Canadian farmers live and work in pre-modern environmen­ts, using horse power and aging equipment; others picture farmers as less educated and less sophistica­ted than city dwellers. But these stereotype­s couldn’t be further from reality. Canadian agri-food has developed into a robust and competitiv­e world player that yields $120 billion annually. It employs more than 12 percent of Canada’s labour force and constitute­s seven percent of the economy. The most fascinatin­g part is that the sector has been growing at a rate nearly 30 per cent greater than the national economy.

Canadian farms and ranches are becoming centres of technologi­cal sophistica­tion and cutting-edge innovation. The farmer of the future is skilled in data analytics, computer science, autonomous farm drones, communicat­ions and management: new farming pioneers are emerging. Last March, the Globe and Mail featured Kristjan Hebert, referring to him as “the epitome of the 21st-century Canadian farmer.” Herbert manages 26,000 acres in Southeaste­rn Saskatchew­an. His farm produces grain and oilseed using tech data and wireless connectivi­ty for nutrient management and disease control. He is a Chartered Profession­al Accountant with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He is on the Speakers Bureau of Canada’s expert roster and lectures regularly about innovation and sustainabi­lity.

The developmen­t and applicatio­n of agricultur­al technologi­es (agtech) for farming are at the cutting edge of the digital revolution. Agtech supplies data, imagery and real-time informatio­n that helps with management, increases productivi­ty and boosts environmen­tal sustainabi­lity. It uses blockchain, artificial intelligen­ce, advanced sensors, imaging and drones to monitor cattle, inspect crops, track moisture levels, and deliver fertilizer­s and pesticides on crops with great results. Precision agricultur­e gathers data directly from animals and crops, shares that informatio­n with computers that analyze the data in real time, which allow operators to remove the guessing from many decisions.

Partnershi­ps among investors, government, tech developers and academia lead the way. Innovative institutio­ns, such as Olds College in Alberta, have launched highly needed programs for reskilling, including Smart Farm. This project will transform their existing teaching farm into an operation of the future, adapting innovative technologi­es to help farming leap into greater productivi­ty, greater economic and environmen­tal sustainabi­lity. Such smart farms are testing grounds of innovative practices, digital programs, scalabilit­y, machinery and processes. They open needed training spaces for the next generation of transforma­tive agricultur­al workers, producers and managers, and showcase technologi­es for investors, entreprene­urial early adopters, and the public at large.

With all the excitement about the future, it’s important to know the Canadian agri-food sector is not free of challenges. In 2017, the advisory Council on Economic Growth identified agri-food as one of the sectors in Canada’s economy that has yet to achieve its full potential. To reach that potential, there are obstacles to overcome in the developmen­t and implementa­tion of these fresh technologi­es. The promise of rural high-speed internet must be fulfilled, and mispercept­ions about laggard environmen­tal standards in farming, ranching and food production need correcting. Most producers observe the highest ethics in preserving the land and safeguardi­ng animals. More to the point, agtech, precision agricultur­e and high-tech methods, such as the calibrated use of fertilizer and measured water management offer even greater sustainabl­e benefits and positive environmen­tal impact.

There are even greater challenges. The 2019 Report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agricultur­e and Agri-food titled Advancemen­ts of Technology and Research in the Agricultur­e Industry that can Support Canadian Exports identified the lack of investment and cost of technology as major obstacles. RBC estimated that agri-food’s output might increase by over $1 billion annually for the next decade if the sector is properly capitalize­d. Global investment in agricultur­al technology rose by 43 percent from 2017, but Canada only receives 3.4 percent of the global share of private investment in agricultur­al sec

The intersecti­on of new technologi­es and growing world demand now offers greater opportunit­ies than ever before.

Canadian agri-food has developed into a robust and competitiv­e world player that yields $120 billion annually. It employs more than 12 percent of Canada’s labour force and constitute­s seven percent of the economy.

tor technology, less than Brazil and India. Canada needs to attract a greater share of global agtech investment to fulfil its potential and continue to innovate. Capital is also a barrier for new players and younger generation­s to enter the market.

Similarly, the availabili­ty of credit to Canadian farmers is 40 per cent lower than the global average, and seven times lower than in New Zealand. Moreover, adoption and implementa­tion of the first generation of emerging technologi­es, programs and equipment are expensive.

Canada is blessed with land, water and resourcefu­l people who have turned this country into the fifth-largest agri-food exporter in the world even though there are countries endowed with more arable land, more people and more favourable climate conditions. But simply maintainin­g current rates of progress would be to lose ground. The intersecti­on of new technologi­es and growing world demand now offers greater opportunit­ies than ever before. World demand for food is increasing as population­s grow and more people emerge out of poverty. A 2016 projection in the Harvard Business Review has growth in global food demand doubling (98 percent) by 2050. India, for instance, is the third largest food market and has the largest availabili­ty of arable land. The McKinsey Global Institute Digital India report estimates that India has the potential to add up to $70 billion dollars of economic value by 2025 within their agricultur­e sector by means of digitizati­on. The opportunit­ies cover numerous areas such as data-driven lending, digital land-registry records, and precision agricultur­e. Its market can use our food products and its farmlands can use the new technologi­es we develop. Looking ahead, this has the potential to bring food security to the most vulnerable in India.

Canada needs to attract a greater share of global agtech investment to fulfil its potential and continue to innovate. Capital is also a barrier for new players and younger generation­s to enter the market.

Learning and understand­ing the successes of the sector domestical­ly may be a good first step to insuring that agri-food in Canada expands its competitiv­eness in world markets and reaches new heights. But to activate that potential and fully seize global opportunit­ies, more energetic and concerted efforts must begin now. With a sense of urgency, Canada needs to accelerate and scale up developmen­t and broaden applicabil­ity with regards to innovation in the ag sector. This can best be done by organizing and fostering a focused, purposeful global ag innovation eco-system composed of the principal stakeholde­rs in the country: entreprene­urs, corporatio­ns, investors, post-secondary institutio­ns and government­s. Without such efforts, Canada could be surpassed by more tenacious nations that could competitiv­ely overtake our obvious potential.

The most important move now is to create a ripe environmen­t for the greatest Canadian agri-food innovation harvest. We need to work together as a transforma­tive innovation cluster, stay committed to advancing our skills and technologi­es, and keep meeting growing global demand for our products and services. Canada must chart out new destinatio­ns for our creative minds and energies, release untapped potential through innovation and unlock the global future, so clearly emerging on our farms and ranches.

 ?? Jeshoots.com photo ?? “The farmer of the future is skilled in data analytics, computer science, autonomous farm drones, communicat­ions and management: new farming pioneers are emerging,” writes Victor T. Thomas.
Jeshoots.com photo “The farmer of the future is skilled in data analytics, computer science, autonomous farm drones, communicat­ions and management: new farming pioneers are emerging,” writes Victor T. Thomas.
 ?? Mark Stebnicki photo ?? Agtech uses blockchain, AI, advanced sensors, imaging and drones to monitor cattle, inspect crops, track moisture levels, and deliver fertilizer­s and pesticides on crops with great results, writes Canada-India Business Council President Victor T. Thomas.
Mark Stebnicki photo Agtech uses blockchain, AI, advanced sensors, imaging and drones to monitor cattle, inspect crops, track moisture levels, and deliver fertilizer­s and pesticides on crops with great results, writes Canada-India Business Council President Victor T. Thomas.

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