(This article has been translated into French.)

Growing Canada’s agriculture sector must be a strategic priority for the next government. Our economic growth in the 2020s and our position in the world could depend on it.

More than two million people earn their livelihood from the agri-food sector, and close to 7 percent of our economic output stems from their efforts. As the fifth largest exporter of agricultural goods, Canadian producers help feed the world. This will become an even greater imperative in the decade ahead as the planet’s population approaches 9 billion people, with close to 1 billion more to feed than today.

Doing that in an environmentally sustainable and economically viable way won’t be easy. But if we start to see the emergence of new technologies and data systems as a historic opportunity, we can transform and grow our agriculture sector, and add to Canada’s relevance in a fast-growing and increasingly complex world.

To start with, few countries enjoy Canada’s mix of abundant, arable lands and fresh waters, as well as access to markets as promised by trade agreements with Europe, Asia and the United States. Few countries can tap into as skilled a workforce, either.

But the skills needed to keep Canada at the forefront of global food production are in the early stages of profound change, and they will hold the key to the sector’s transformation.

With the right skills and technologies, the agriculture sector could add $11 billion to Canada’s GDP and be worth more than $50 billion annually a decade from now. This is one of the findings in Farmer 4.0, a new report by RBC. That would make agriculture larger than the combined value of Canada’s automobile assembly and aeronautics industries.

To get there, government, industry and academia must come together to ensure farmers and food producers have the right tools — from advanced technologies to financial capital to lifelong learning — to keep pace with other countries that are rapidly investing in agriculture.

Already, many aspects of Canadian farming and food production are at the forefront of innovation. Canadians are at the cutting edge of a new agricultural revolution. To research Farmer 4.0, my collaborators and I travelled across the country. We met with Saskatchewan canola farmers working with autonomous farm machines that measure soil conditions. We talked to a Greater Toronto Area builder who has started a vertical indoor farm to grow herbs. And we spoke to Ontario and Quebec dairy farmers, who are employing robotic milking machines to double their production and new data systems to track quality instantly.

There is no shortage of ingenuity on Canadian farms.

Canola crops in Saskatchewan. By Kangas

Yet it is far easier for a young Canadian to raise capital to start a software company than to run a farm. Many producers I spoke with in the Prairies expressed frustration about that. They want Canadian leaders to create new financing options for people wanting to start farms, to invest in farming technology, to stimulate private-sector R&D in agriculture, and to attract more immigrant entrepreneurs and technologists to the agriculture sector.

Priority needs to be given to the human side of agriculture, to ensure Canada has enough people in the sector to avoid a demographic crisis and the right technology skills to avoid a digital crisis. That speaks to two challenges we must address.

First, over the next decade, nearly 40 percent of the agricultural workforce will be 65 or older. We don’t have the pipeline to replace these workers, because every year, 600 fewer young people are entering the sector. To help reverse this trend, the industry needs to do a better job of drawing attention to the exciting and diverse career paths one can take in agriculture nowadays, including opportunities beyond the farm in office towers, data centres and engineering labs around the country.

Second, new skills are required to manage the farm of the future. The reality is innovative technologies aren’t much of an advantage unless their operators have the skills and infrastructure to put them to use, and that includes leveraging data to help a farm boost productivity.

This is all the more challenging given that the capabilities required to operate an aquaculture farm will be different from those required to operate a vineyard or raise cattle. We need to rethink how we train youth, knowing that the challenges and opportunities vary greatly in each part of the country.

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To better understand our challenges in this area, in Canada about 20 percent of farmers under 40 have a university degree. Compare this with the situation in the Netherlands, where 75 percent of young farmers have a bachelor’s degree or higher. A leading Dutch institute, Wageningen University, is helping the country sustain its global comparative advantage in greenhouse horticulture by developing the know-how in applying the Internet of Things to sustainable food systems.

Holstein cows grazing in a farm in Vaughan, Ontario. By Aerovista Luchtfotografie

Among its recent initiatives, Wageningen launched a global competition to create autonomous greenhouses to grow cucumbers in four months, drawing interest to Dutch agriculture from Microsoft, Intel and the Chinese technology giant Tencent. The results have been stunning. Canada has 46 million hectares of agricultural land; the Netherlands has only 900,000 hectares. Yet, per capita, the small European country exports three times the value of agricultural products that we produce.

To be sure, Canada is home to excellent agriculture schools; 6 of our universities rank in the top 100 agriculture and forestry programs globally. What’s more, the number of students enrolled in these programs is expanding rapidly, as Statistics Canada shows. For example, enrolment has risen by 29 percent over the last 10 years. (Many graduates do, however, go on to work in value-added areas such as processing.) But training the next generation of producers will require innovation across our schools, including more interdisciplinary studies to blend the study of farming, food and land systems with non-agriculture courses such as computer science.

An enhanced focus on agriculture can’t wait for post-secondary education, either. The earlier this integration of agricultural and non-agricultural learning can be done the better, starting in K-12. This is all the more important given the fact 26 percent of young farm operators entered the industry directly from high school, according to 2016 census data from Statistics Canada. Australia is already there, exposing children to agriculture and food issues in kindergarten and then expanding their awareness of opportunities in the field as they advance through school.

All those new skills will need new technology, too. Unfortunately, Canada lags behind its global competitors in the development of advanced agricultural technologies and processes, despite significant public dollars directed to research and development, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Even accounting for Canada’s smaller size, private investment in R&D is a tiny fraction of what US firms spend. As a result, Canadian producers told us they often rely on second-generation technology that’s been in use for a decade or longer in the market next door.

In our cross-country conversations with producers, public officials and academia, a number of recommendations emerged that will help producers take full advantage of an agricultural revolution.

Clearly the federal government needs to play a role. Many people we spoke to want to see Ottawa convene a national skills strategy for agriculture, together with farmers, food processors, educators and industry groups, to plan for future labour needs. That would include a re-examination of our immigration policies for the sector, which relies heavily on foreign labour. One idea is to establish a dedicated referral channel for agriculture workers under the Global Skills Strategy, which is a federal government initiative to reduce processing times for high-skilled labour in select industries. Currently no such channel exists for the agriculture sector.

Farms along the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal in The Netherlands. By Aerovista Luchtfotografie

At the same time, industry groups want a more coordinated effort, perhaps even a bold campaign, to attract more young people, women, Indigenous people and highly skilled immigrants to agriculture and to retain them.

Other recommendations in Farmer 4.0 are focused on the need to prepare the next generation of producers for a more digitally enabled world of farming. From our consultations with producers, industry representatives and academia, there is a clear desire to incorporate agriculture into Canada’s new work-integrated learning strategy, a program that provides post-secondary students with real-world work experiences. This could be an effective way to increase exposure for non-agriculture students across the agri-food industry.

And there is a desire to see all major research and development initiatives link education and skills development. We see some early promising signs in this regard initiated by the Protein Industries Supercluster, an industry-led, not-for-profit organization created to position Canada as a global source of high-quality plant-protein- and plant-based co-products.

In all of this, we have heard a chorus of voices declaring that agriculture must be treated as a strategic priority for Canada. Feed the world, grow at home: that should be our clarion call.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Andriy Blokhin

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John Stackhouse
John Stackhouse is a senior vice-president at RBC. He advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world.

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