Across the country, consumers’ renewed interest in agriculture presents an opportunity to reimagine our increasingly fragile food system by investing in new technologies.
During the spring planting season, farmers were raising the alarm that crops may not get into the ground or be left to rot in fields as a result of labour shortages due the global pandemic. Transportation barriers and the decline in commodity crop prices have some produce farmers contemplating sitting out this season altogether.
These concerns are far from new, however. We’ve known for years that disruptions in the movement of people and goods—be it a result of coronavirus or climate change—would increase the burden on already stretched farmers to unsustainable levels, threatening both international trade and Canada’s ability to supply its own citizens with nutritious, affordable food grown on home soil.
But we needn’t resign ourselves to an increasingly fragile food system. The attention drawn to the sector by COVID-19 has opened a door for much-needed change, and technology in particular can help us drive that critical change. There are many lessons from historical pandemics around the role of innovation in reaching a new, and better, normal. Similarly, innovation has a key role to play in determining the future of food and agriculture in the age of COVID. The time is ripe for robust investment in made-in-Canada technologies that not only support our farmers and strengthen our food system, but also position Canada as a world leader in farming for the21st century.
From farm management platforms that make it easier to optimize production for market demand, to autonomous vehicles and robots that reduce the need for physical labour, to crop protection systems that work with nature to reduce the need for harmful synthetic pesticides, Canadian companies are at the forefront of innovations that stand to make our food systems more efficient, sustainable, productive and profitable.
Doubling down on investment in these technologies now would lower cost barriers and improve access for farmers, who often struggle to afford innovations such as advanced robotics and sophisticated software.
One approach would be to provide incentives for adopting new, more sustainable technologies and land management practices that can accelerate change and put new tools into the hands of those who need them most.
Technologies aside, this moment also presents an important opportunity to elevate the perception of farmers and agricultural workers themselves. The past decades have seen interest in agriculture as a career declining among younger Canadians as we become more urbanized and less connected to our food sources. The pandemic has raised awareness of the essential nature of this work and the people who do it, but we need to go a step further and connect average Canadians more deeply to our food supply.
Far from outdated or low-tech, farming today is increasingly fueled by innovation, with immense potential to make a positive impact on the economy and the environment through practices such as regenerative agriculture and soil carbon sequestration. What’s been missing is a powerful way to connect the general public with the evolution farming is undergoing.
As more consumers side-step grocery stores and reach out to farmers directly for their local produce, and as students look to alternative industries for jobs, now is a perfect time tore-establish that connection, and to refamiliarize Canadians with the incredible potential and possibilities held in our soils and farmlands for fulfilling careers and economic innovation.
Handled correctly, investment in this sector now could position Canada as an international leader in agtech and cleantech solutions in a world that will need to boost its global food production 70 percent by 2050 to feed a growing population.
Somewhere in the back of our minds, we all know that food and farmers are tied to our survival and our quality of life. But the current crisis has pulled that into sharper focus than in recent memory. We need to make the most of this moment, to ensure we don’t forget the importance of agriculture and food production once this crisis is over.
In fact, if we go one step further, we can build on this lesson to make our society and our country stronger, better and more resilient than ever.
Originally published in BC Business