The future of food production

Technology can help boost food yields, but will require policies to get it in the hands of more farmers

Despite the challenges faced by humanity in 2023, there’s huge reason for optimism that the way we grow and get our food will improve, become more efficient and environmentally sustainable.

But it won’t happen without guidance or good policy, local food experts said Friday at an invitation-only agriculture technology conference held in Abbotsford.

Friday’s Grounded Innovation Summit at the University of the Fraser Valley brought together food experts, provincial and municipal government officials and politicians, farmers, and policymakers.

The day began with the summit’s keynote panel on the “future of food” with four participants.

They started by talking about challenges facing farmers, but also the opportunities that are available to produce more food—and sell it to consumers at reasonable costs—if agriculture innovation is allowed to thrive.

Here’s one of the highlights of that discussion, led by moderator Randene Neill, and featuring Dr. Lenore Newman (director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley), Dr. Evan Fraser (director of Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph), Paul Pryce (director of policy at the BC Agriculture Council), Stan Vander Waal (past president of the BC Agriculture Council).

Randene Neill: It's really important before we get into the future of food to talk about what's happening right now. Threats, [like] floods, as the mayor mentioned, drought in so much of the province right now, fires, climate change, inflation and wars in Ukraine and Israel. So it's a dynamic time in the agri-food sector. How do each of you view it today?

Dr. Evan Fraser speaks during the Grounded Innovation Summit’s panel on the future of food, Friday at the University of the Fraser Valley. 📷 Dale Klippenstein

Dr. Evan Fraser: I'm going to dodge the question, I'm going to go to the past, not the present, not the future. I think that there's a large amount to be learned from the past of food systems. And something that Eleanor and I have both done in our careers is look deep into the past. We have a 10,000-year history of doing agriculture, which has allowed us to produce food under all sorts of circumstances, easy and bad political regimes, enabling and disabling.

For me, one of the key lessons of history, which I think is so important for today, is that although COVID, conflict in the Ukraine, and climate change—the three really scary Cs seem terrible—co-operation, collaboration, our capacity to innovate, three good Cs, actually allows us to overcome these things.

So one of the overwhelming lessons of history, which I think we all need to remember, is that when we co-operate and collaborate, we have a huge capacity to unlock innovations. And one of the lessons of history, thank goodness, is that when we do the good C's, we can overcome the bad Cs.

If there's one thing I want people to remember from today from this entire conversation, is that in this moment of great political turmoil, and polarization and maybe even tribalization… where the discourse of collaboration and co-operation is breaking down in so many parts of the world terrifyingly, if we can collaborate, we can overcome a huge amount.

And so I'm very proud to be part of Canada, part of conversations like this, part of organizations across the country, because I think Canada right now are perhaps the grown-ups in the room, that we're able to have these big conversations and can get into the details of the technologies and how you overcome drought with that kind of tech or management tool, let's have that conversation. But let's focus first and foremost on the collaborative part of it. And the rest of all, I think will unfold quite naturally.

Paul Pryce: I'm very peased to be here—sorry, that was very low hanging fruit, I apologize. But anyway, there's a lot of worrying trends that you identified. But I think maybe one of the most worrying trends that has emerged is that we are never more removed from agriculture—from the food that we eat—than we are perhaps now at this present moment in time.

In that gap between the way that the food is produced and the consumer, a lot of misinformation has emerged and sometimes even arbitrary targets. So for example, a lot of controversy has emerged, and the federal government had set a target of reducing nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer by 2030.

We don't actually have a credible way of measuring the amount of nitrous oxide that's being emitted so it's kind of a target that seemed to be picked out of thin air—something that sounded very catchy, you know, 30% by 2030. Or the European Union, there's a farm-to-fork strategy where they're talking about reducing pesticide use by 50%, or having 25% of agricultural land being dedicated to organic production.

Where do these numbers come from? I think it's really quite concerning when policymakers and the public don't really know what's going into it. There's these targets that have emerged and to the average farmer it feels a little bit like backseat driving—almost being set up to feel that you need to produce more food cheaper, but also to achieve these targets that aren’t even actually informed by science. So to me, I think that is the most worrying trend that we have to, as a society, work to address.

Neill: How can agri-tech innovations contribute to improving food security locally and globally, particularly in the face of climate change and population growth?

Lenore Newman: It's a good question. I stand by my well-known opinion that in the future, if we get out of the way, and let agritech do what it does, food will be better, it will be cheaper, it will be more nutritious, more diverse, and it will be produced on a much smaller footprint of your territory, so that we will have a lot of land freedom to return to, you know, wild lands, etc.

I stand by them with the proviso that it's like a race. In that we have all this technology coming together and really speeding up. And at the same time, we have utter chaos on the planet. And it's kind of a race between the chaos and the innovation. And you know I’m an optimist, as as everyone knows. So I'm betting on the innovation winning over the chaos, but maybe that's just because that's how I'm wired.

To me, if we let agritech unfold as much as possible, and we pour fuel on it by getting policies aligned and putting money into it—I'm going to use puns too— to seed our agritech, I think that in the end, we end up with a much better food system.

Neill: Stan, how can agritech innovations contributed to improving food security?

Stan Vander Waal: First, I'd like to, if I may Lenore, just correct one thing: as the farmer, I don't think food’s going to get cheaper.

But can we produce more with innovative technology? Absolutely. I just think of some of the real wins we've had over the years. I’m in the greenhouse sector growing flowers, but all of us guys in the greenhouse business, we know how much we can produce off of a greenhouse per acre, and what kind of yields and the reduction in water consumption, reduction in fertilizer, benefits to the environment.

These are the kinds of things we're seeing in terms of the innovation that's really coming through. And when you see from a technology point of view, what's been employed in agriculture over the years—whether it be GPS, AI, these different things that actually really help us, ultimately, drive efficiency, but also really lower the inputs.

So when we look at things like fertilizer, fertilizer is one of those things with GPS and AI. So we're using the technology to say, how much yield are we getting off of a specific area of land? How much fertilizer should we put on for that specific area? Those kinds of things are really tools for the future that ultimately will reduce the environmental impact, but also get better yield results and potentially hold the cost of food.

Fraser: I really think that if you look at agriculture as it’s practiced today, most farms are using at best 20th Century technology, and a lot of them are using 19th Century technology. And yet we are living in a moment of radical technological disruption where the same technologies that have given us the smartphone and turned a novel virus into six vaccines within 18 months, like that is a remarkable accomplishment.

Those same technologies haven't really yet been fully realized in the agri tech sector. The sector in which we all depend three times a day are still, when you look at farmers across the world, are using technologies that are 40, 50, 150 years out of date. So between improving the genomics of our crops and our livestock, between using the sort of GPS-enabled precision agriculture stuff that you're talking about, brewing proteins in vats in laboratories in a brew-like setting, we haven't yet to realize any of the gains any of the real gains of that technological wave of innovation.

And properly applied—I completely agree with Lenore—I think it will result in an agricultural sector that keeps prices low—whether it's lower, or today's level—but it keeps prices low. It provides a livelihood to farmers and it protects the planet. But we have to get the policies right. We have to get the flows of capital going in the right [places] with the right kind of incentives so that we don't just allow another tech wave or generation of tech billionaires to emerge and that this new innovation simply repeats waves in the past. We can have a chance to do things differently with this wave and I really hope we can do it. And the mantra of my work is to try to create those enabling environments, so that this wave of innovation serves not only profitability, but also the planet and society.

Pryce: I think, Evan, that’s a really great point to touch on is trying to have that that supportive environment. I'm really appreciative that you're doing that kind of work, but as well, the need for capital, which is I think the biggest challenge [and] is why these agri tech solutions aren't necessarily being adopted widely, it’s why some of the technology, as you said, is outdated.

The average farm debt in Canada, pre-pandemic, we were always talking about, “Oh, you know, someday it might get to a million dollars.” We've smashed that in the Fraser Valley. It's in the millions. So when you're that deep into the hole, and someone comes to you saying, buy this new shiny thing, it'll innovate your product, it will cost you just a million dollars, surely, you can incur a little bit more debt. The farmer says, “Heck, no, I can’t go deeper into the hole.”

So I think it's really maybe my cautionary note to a lot of the agritech entrepreneurs attending today is to think of agritech as a service, not a good. Uber got that big because it was connecting passengers with drivers not, you know, selling cars or having physical assets like a fleet of taxi cars, for example. So I think maybe seeing agritech as a service, not a good and also recognizing in particular BC’s environment and its small scale farming sector. [There are] 15,400 farm properties, according to Statscan. That sounds like an exciting number. But 500 of those actually get close to about $2 million in average revenues. The average farm in BC is quite small. So again, coming to them offering a service rather than a good is probably a recipe for success.

Vander Waal: To speak a little bit to the adoption of technology and AI in agriculture, I think one thing we have to remember is that—Paul spoke to the size of the farms…the reality is we have an 80/20 rule of agriculture. Eighty per cent of the farms sell 20% of the GDP of agriculture in the province. So when you look at the 20% that are producing 80%, that 20% are very advanced in technology.

So when I look at our own farm, I know we're cutting edge on everything we're doing, not only that, we're pushing the boundaries of what the norm is on everything. And that's very normal for that 20% producing 80%. But the other most important thing is, is how do we get the rest to come along. And that's really you can say the challenge we have today is with some of the objectives that are being set.

The the bar has been set high, but for the farmers, I see that group of farmers that really doesn't have the capacity, and this is potentially 80% of the farmers doing 20% of the volume. This group really doesn't have the capacity, they're busy—hands in the dirt, if I can put it that way, with the animals.

These people, they're giving up. They're basically taking the approach or just saying: if I gotta fill in this form, if I’ve got to meet this requirement, this code of practice, all this kind of stuff. I'm doing this, but I can't, I don't have time to do this stuff. I don't have the financial levels.

So these are the things that are holding back. So looking at adoption [of technology], we have to find a way to bring those people because otherwise we're going to lose that that group of partners and that's what's going to hold us back… I think we couldn't exist without [the adoption of new agritech]. That’s really what it comes down to. So Evan, I’d really like to correct that one.

We’ll have more stories from the Summit in coming editions of the Fraser Valley Current.

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