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Preparing the future of Canadian agriculture

Canada’s share of global agriculture tech investment was just 3.4 per cent last year

Ryan Riese.
photo: Supplied

Canada’s economic prospects have long been underpinned by trade. No industry better illustrates this than agriculture, where more than 90 percent of our producers depend on selling their goods to the world.

In recent years, exports in agriculture and agri-food have grown dramatically, generating millions more in annual sales for producers and billions more to the Canadian economy. A number of signals bode well for continued growth in exports. The world’s population is booming — more than one billion more people will need to be fed by 2030. And much of the demand will come from markets where we have trade agreements, with Asia, Europe and the United States.

The potential upside for Canada’s agriculture sector is stunning. A new RBC report estimates the industry could grow to $51 billion in output by 2030. That’s up from $32 billion today. Few opportunities facing Canada are as transformative. We must pursue it.

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To do so, however, the industry must address challenges and adapt to a new way of work powered by cognitive machines and a skills-savvy workforce. That was a clear takeaway from the consultations RBC undertook with a wide range of stakeholders, including Canadian producers, industry groups, and academia over a four-month period, and which culminated in the report, Farmer 4.0.

Consider demographics. The average farm operator is 55 years old, fewer youth are choosing the join the agriculture workforce each year, and the rural population has remained unchanged at six million for the past three decades. These factors are propelling us towards a severe domestic labour shortage, which the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council has estimated at 123,000 unfilled positions by 2030, excluding foreign workers.

Clearly, we need to fill the talent pipeline, and to find pathways for more under-represented groups of people to choose agriculture. The nature and remoteness of work are some barriers in attracting more people to pursue a career in agriculture, so too is the major capital required to own an operation. The good news is technology can help reduce physical demands and create a more typical work arrangement and attract a new workforce of diverse skill sets.

Indeed, as our report notes, the work of producing food goes well beyond the field. It will be carried out in office towers, data centres and engineering labs, as we look to turn our land and water into a hyper-efficient and sustainable food source for the planet. Helping to raise awareness of these opportunities — and attract more youth, women, Indigenous people and new Canadians — is an important step in growing our talent pipeline.

Even with the labour gap closed, new skills are required to manage the proliferation of innovative technologies that are transforming the way crops are grown and farms managed. Employers are looking for workers who are creative, adaptable and self-starters. Training will also need to be cross-disciplinary as today’s producers need a blend of expertise in food and land systems with business and technology-related disciplines. Canada is home to some top-notch agriculture schools and student enrolment in them is rising. But given that a quarter of young farm operators enter the industry directly from high school, the earlier we can integrate agriculture with non-agriculture learnings, the better.

Canada also needs to find new ways to commercialize technology which goes hand-in-hand with the skills revolution transforming the farm. That’s because when we develop the solutions, we also cultivate the next generation of skills to go with them.

Our share of global agriculture tech investment was 3.4 per cent last year. That’s less than either India or Brazil, emerging economies that have significantly boosted their market share in agricultural exports in the last two decades. Even accounting for Canada’s smaller size, private investment in R&D is a tiny fraction of what U.S. firms invest in the industry. Clearly, better co-ordination between stakeholders to pool funding and develop world-class solutions is required.

Canadian producers are resilient. They face and overcome challenges beyond their control most every season. In this new age of agriculture, however, the need to fill the talent pipeline, develop new skills sets, and boost innovation will require a combined and co-ordinated effort from the public and private sectors.

In developing our report, we grew increasingly optimistic of this collaboration. There are a number of shining examples of how the challenges cited above are being tackled. We have some way to go, but there is a growing recognition that the roots of Canadian prosperity are first seeded in the lands we farm. It’s in our national interest to help our producers feed the world’s growing appetite.

Ryan Riese is national director, agriculture, Royal Bank of Canada.

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