In its second report published earlier this year, the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth identified agriculture and food (“agfood”) as one of eight sectors of the economy that have significant untapped potential, but require focus and attention to unlock.

The authors noted the sector’s record of accomplishments in research, its exceptional base of companies and entrepreneurs, and its favourable positioning to meet growing global demand, particularly in Asia where protein consumption is rising.

“These assets, coupled with the scale of the existing obstacles, provide the potential for material economic gains for Canadians while also providing a blueprint for how the government and private sector may work together to unleash Canada’s potential in other sectors,” according to the report.

It pointed out that Canada’s agricultural sector employs 2.1 million Canadians and accounts for 6.7 per cent of GDP. The country ranks fifth in agriculture exports and 11th in agfood exports — behind smaller countries like Holland and behind less economically advanced countries like Brazil.

Moving Canada up the rankings to second in agriculture and fifth in agfood could add US$30-billion in annual exports, equivalent to nearly two percent of current GDP.

To help achieve these gains, the Council recommended a new and focused approach to sector development, based on removing obstacles and setting bold ambitions in collaboration with the private sector.

Agricultural sector experts believe that technology also has an important part to play in the transformation, but there’s work to be done.

Professor Evan Fraser, Director of the Arrell Food Institute and a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph, says Canada has all the elements in place to become the trusted source of safe and sustainable food for the world, but has not yet linked them together.

“Canada needs to develop the ag-tech tools, processes and government mechanisms to be able to verify claims that Canadian food is indeed the safest and most sustainable in the world,” he says, adding that developing those tools we will give the country three key advantages:

  • Trust among domestic consumers by having a transparent and evidence-based system to demonstrate that Canadian food is safe and sustainable.
  • A more robust Brand Canada, which will be specifically useful for exporters to Asian markets where there is anecdotal evidence that middle-class consumers are increasingly skeptical about the safety and sustainability of their domestic food.
  • An export market for the technologies themselves and for standards of governance procedures on safety and sustainability for international trade.

“The question of data governance and data integration is also going to emerge as absolutely crucial,” says Fraser. “Much like we’re seeing the wave of machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data analytics affecting other sectors of the economy, agri-food is expected to be one of the next waves of innovation in this broad area of high technology.”

At an operational level, the question of how to aggregate data, enhance cyber security and preserve anonymity becomes “absolutely enormous,” he adds.

“Interoperability of data is needed to track food from farm to fork. This means we need large-scale data governance systems that will drive transparency and accountability and will also drive efficiency. This means we will need to establish coherence in common data collection protocols, cybersecurity protocols as well as enhancing rural broadband so that the data can come off the farms in a fast and efficient way.”

A recent report by IBM Europe analyst Madalina Irimia noted that digital and technological advancements are taking over the agricultural industry, enhancing food production, adding value to the entire supply chain and promoting a more efficient use of natural resources more efficiently.

For example, data generated by sensors or agricultural drones collected at farms, on the field or during transportation offer a wealth of information about soil, seeds, livestock, crops, costs, farm equipment or the use of water and fertilizer.

Advanced analytics help farmers analyse real time data like weather, temperature, moisture, prices or GPS signals and provide insights on how to optimize and increase yield, improve farm planning, make smarter decisions about the level of resources needed, and when and where to distribute them to prevent waste.

The report stated that efficiency and productivity will increase in the coming years through “precision agriculture” and that farms will become smarter and more connected.

It estimated that by 2020, over 75 million agricultural devices will be linked through the Internet of Things (devices communicating with one another) and that the typical farm will generate an average of 4.1 million data points every day in 2050, up from 190,000 in 2014.