/Canada seen poised to lead world in food production if we can seize ‘fourth agricultural revolution’

Canada seen poised to lead world in food production if we can seize ‘fourth agricultural revolution’

Were the need to arise, Brian Tischler could simultaneously sip coffee in a café in Vienna, Austria while using his smartphone to steer a tractor across his 2,500-acre farm in Mannville, Alta.

Tischler, 55, is the inventor of AgOpenGPS, an open source software for autonomous tractors that has been downloaded thousands of times by farmers located in places as far afield as Lithuania, Africa and South America. It’s a contribution that has won accolades from media and industry associations alike.

Yet when it comes down to the business of farming, Tischler is quick to shrug off its importance.

“It hasn’t really improved productivity on the farm, and it hasn’t allowed me to relax because I still have to keep an eye on it,” he said. “It’s a lot harder than we think to apply technology to farming in a way that truly helps farmers. That’s the challenge.”

How farmers like Tischler manage data and technology could determine the future of Canadian agriculture, according to a new study from RBC researchers and economists. Indeed, the sector could inject an additional $11 billion into Canada’s economy by 2030, pushing its total contribution to $51 billion – enough to eclipse both aeronautics and auto assembly in overall importance, the study finds.

But seizing on a “fourth agricultural revolution” that emphasizes data over manual labour will mean boosting investments in technology, addressing a looming labour shortage and bridging a gaping skills deficit.

“We see agriculture as at the forefront of our opportunities to lead the world in 21st century food production,” said John Stackhouse, senior vice-president at RBC. “It’s going to require a lot of new technologies and as the report stresses, a lot of new skills. But there’s no country better positioned. We have the land, the water, the talent base and the market access.” 

After leading the country in productivity for decades, Canadian agriculture has plateaued in recent years. On its current declining path, the sector will likely post a growth rate of 1.8 per cent annually by 2030, according to RBC. However, an ambitious skills agenda and the adoption of innovative technologies could see that figure return to a 10 year average of 3 per cent — or even more if Canada embraces a “culture of innovation” similar to agricultural powerhouses Netherlands and Australia, the report suggests.

It’s a lot harder than we think to apply technology to farming in a way that truly helps farmers

“We’re actually really good at agricultural innovation,” Stackhouse said. “Six out of the top 100 agricultural schools in the world are Canadian. We just have to get great at it and often Canadians settle for good enough. That’s not good enough in this day and age when we look around the world and see other countries like the Netherlands, Israel and part of the United States doing really interesting things with technology.” 

Canada’s agricultural sector lost 31 per cent of its workforce over the past 20 years and will see as many as 123,000 jobs go unfilled within a decade. And though enrolment in agricultural post secondary programs jumped 29 per cent in the last 10 years — surpassing the increase in other programs — it’s unlikely to be enough to fill the shortfall as 37 per cent of the workforce prepares to retire. Indeed, many of those students will end up working in new types of intermediary agricultural roles — as technicians, plant scientists and advisors for producers — rather than taking over the family farm.

Government and financial institutions can help with barriers to farm ownership, including the heavy capital investment required, the report notes.

The question is whether all this tech adds to our bottom line

With Canada lagging in the “agtech race” — its share of global agtech investment was 3.4 per cent, behind both India and Brazil — more funding for technology is also crucial. Global investment in agtech is currently booming as tech companies comb fields for data and farmers such as Tischler look for new ways to grow more food at lower costs.

But finding that kind of technology isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Automated milking machines, crop-watering drones and plant science that can ward off pests and contamination are all being used to various degrees of success. But Tischler worries that much of the information collected from fields and barns benefits tech companies more than farmers.

“The question is whether all this tech adds to our bottom line,” said Tischler. “Our cost per tonne of grain needs to come down. How much is the innovation out there doing that. Honestly?”

He points to autosteering applications — which use global positioning systems to guide tractors in a straight line, reducing human error — as one of the most important technological innovations for farmers in the past 25 years. He remains circumspect about autonomous tractors — even his own.

“After building my tractor last spring I couldn’t help thinking this just isn’t the way to go,” said Tischler. “We need autosteer 2.0.”

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