Five key issues facing Canada’s agri-food industry

Recent events show there's no entitlement to the continued prosperity of our agri-food value chain, which should spur Canadian agri-food to think differently about new and old problems in the sector.


The Canadian agri-food industry is facing massive challenges as new problems continue to pop up and old ones persist. Without a change in how we do things, we'll never achieve our full potential, says Stanford Blade, dean of the U of A's Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. (Photo: Getty Images)

"Agriculture is a legacy industry."

"We need to feed nine billion people by 2050."

"Food security isn't a production issue, it is a distribution problem."

"We need to invest in the industries of the future, not the past."

"Amazing industry, but I hope my kid doesn't choose that as a career option."

What is your favourite cliché regarding the agriculture and food sectors? Do you think they describe reality? What do you really believe about an industry that exported $65 billion in products last year with domestic sales well over $100 billion?

Everything you think you know about agriculture is changing. I grew up on a dairy farm in Alberta. I have worked in leadership teams in agri-food research institutions in Canada and Africa. I served as CEO of an Alberta group that placed investments in the agriculture, food and bio-economy sectors. And now I have the privilege of serving as dean of one of Canada's leading agriculture and food faculties.

Agriculture has been my life, and yet I feel like I am struggling to keep up. Some things are still true. Canada has remarkably abundant and productive land, water availability that is the envy of most countries, and amazingly talented people. Here are a few observations from my experiences in the last few months.

Food security

I was invited to Brunei to discuss the possibility of having students enrol in agriculture and food programs at the University of Alberta. With the downturn in petroleum prices, the Sultan of Brunei issued a royal decree that the country needed to be more focused on self-reliance for food security.

In Canada, we face our own challenges with food security in our northern, Indigenous and low-income communities. COVID-19 is showing us that interruptions in global food supply chains have the potential to affect our families and friends.

New players

Our industries are ideally suited to participate in the artificial intelligence and machine learning revolution. We are an industry that is data rich in everything from soil fertility levels to consumer behaviour.

At a meeting in Seattle on new opportunities in digital agriculture, the "usual suspects" of corporate agriculture and food were joined by Amazon, Airbus, Microsoft, Google Ventures, IBM and an interesting set of global venture capital firms. These groups will bring amazing new technology, experience and investment into agriculture and food. According to the financial monitoring firm AgFunder, venture capitalists, hedge funds and others invested $16.9 billion into agri-food tech startups in 2018.

Daunting challenges

We are constantly facing wicked problems that are beyond our control. These include transportation interruptions, increased energy costs and trade disputes in addition to our perennial issues of invasive pests and volatile weather.

One Academy Awards speech can capture the interest and attention of millions of citizens while we keep telling ourselves that if Canadians only knew more about who we are and what we do, everything would be fine. We need to find trusted partners and advocates outside of our industry who want to amplify our messages because our hard work aligns with their aspirations.

Recruiting great people

In our faculty, we now have more urban undergraduate students than those from rural backgrounds. We have instituted a new "mini-internship" program so these bright students can spend time with top-tier crop and livestock producers, food processors and bio-industrial companies to provide experience they didn't get growing up. We need to use everything in our power to draw talented people at every career stage into the exciting opportunities presented by agriculture and food.

Research and innovation are investments

The trend in Canada is to reduce public spending in developing the new people and new ideas our sector will need. Our competitors are doing exactly the opposite. In February, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the new "Agriculture Innovation Agenda," which will align the entire USDA "to position American agriculture to increase production by 40 per cent while cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050."

Canada and its provinces need to respond to this and similar initiatives in other competing countries, or our industry will be left behind.

If Canada is going to increase its agri-food exports from $65 billion to $85 billion, and domestic sales to $140 billion by 2025, we will have to think about what we need to do differently. Recent events have shown that there is no entitlement to the continued prosperity of our agri-food value chain.

Perhaps the headwinds we face will provide the impetus and courage to think differently about what our future agri-food sector needs to do to be, in the words of the 2017 Barton Report, "the trusted 21st-century global leader in the supply of safe, nutritious and sustainable food."

Stanford Blade is dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

This opinion-editorial originally appeared March 23 in The Hill Times.