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Opinion

The time is now to position Canada as a global leader in Agri-Food

By Evan Fraser, Rory McAlpine      

The final report of the Finance Minister’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which was released Feb. 6, highlighted agriculture as one of four economic sectors capable of helping raise incomes and create jobs across the country.

Canada must strive to become the world's second-largest exporter of agricultural products (after the United States) and double our share of world exports in processed food, the authors argue. Photograph courtesy of Gary Csoff
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February 16 is Canada’s Agriculture Day; a day to celebrate the food we love and where it comes from, focusing not only on farmers and producers but also on Canada’s food processing sector, our retailers large and small and, of course, consumers.

Although Canada’s Agriculture Day is a new addition to the calendar, it is a timely one. The challenges and opportunities around food and agriculture have never been greater. First, we have global population growth that means 2 billion more mouths will need to be fed over the next generation. Then, there is the rapidly growing Asian middle class who demand higher quality and more resource-intensive food. And, of course, we have to deal with climate change, water scarcity and volatile energy prices.

Southeast Asia, where demand is high and the land is scarce, likely will be looking to import more food during the next 20 years. While this presents a global food security challenge, Canada is set to play an increasingly important role as one of the world’s key breadbaskets.

We have abundant arable land, good supplies of fresh water, stable and well-established markets and political systems, and a strong infrastructure.

Canada is also poised to take advantage of what is being called “the next agri-food revolution” or “Ag. 4.0.” The same technologies that created the internet and that are transforming medicine are now being applied in farmers’ fields and food processing factories. A brave new world is beckoning where artificial intelligence and big data analytics reshape how we produce food and even the kinds of food we consume.

Smart tractors that sense where they are in a field and plant the right seed at the right time with just the right amount of fertilizer are beginning to allow farmers to produce more food with fewer inputs. Robotic milking parlors are monitoring and helping manage the health of individual cows in real time, maintaining health and welfare standards while increasing productivity.

Smart food packaging is extending the shelf life of perishable foods. Innovations around alternative protein supplies and 3-D printing are creating new products for consumers. And genomic tools such as DNA barcoding offer the opportunity to create better systems to control invasive pests, track foodborne ailments, and offer consumers guarantees about the quality and provenance of their food.

Overall, the promise of Ag. 4.0 is more food and safer food produced on less land, with fewer inputs and environmental impacts.

The federal government is aware of this potential. The final report of the Finance Minister’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which was released Feb. 6, highlighted agriculture as one of four economic sectors capable of helping raise incomes and create jobs across the country.

The report said that agri-food is one of Canada’s largest economic sectors, providing 2.1 million jobs and being responsible for 6.7 per cent of our annual GDP. Showing a 9.5 per cent annual growth rate during the last five years, agri-food companies have outpaced most other sectors of the economy.

Based on this strong economic performance and the global opportunities presented by the rising demand for food, the Advisory Council recommended that the federal government establish a vision for Canada to become “the trusted global leader in safe, nutritious, and sustainable food for the 21st century.” To fulfill this vision, Canada must strive to become the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products (after the United States) and double our share of world exports in processed food.

These are ambitious targets, and achieving them will require us to harmonize policies and regulations with our trading partners, invest in infrastructure (especially agri-food data processing, data storage and data analytics), and bring together our agri-food universities, regulators, producer groups, food processors, and retailers.

The timing has never been better to position Canada as a global leader in this important area of international commerce, and, in doing so, create jobs and widespread economic opportunities.

We can provide leadership through a combination of technological sophistication, coordination among strategic stakeholders, and a willingness to engage.

On Canada’s Agriculture Day—and every day—we can show the world that Canada is ready to help tackle the global challenge of feeding our growing population.

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