Written by Murray Coleman and Kenton Rein
In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, Bennett Jones Agribusiness, Food and Beverage practice group wrote about trends in agribusiness, namely AgTech, ESG and Export and Trade. After two years, the Bennett Jones Agribusiness group is back in person at Calgary's Agriculture Summit hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, eager to hear if agriculture and agribusiness has evolved.
From Trends to Mainstream
From the outset, it was clear that some previous trends have now become mainstream. For example, technology to enable farming smarter not harder is a must to stay competitive. Companies such as Sasktel, BASF and Nutrien are looking at artificial intelligence technologies to help them analyse information related to climate, biology and hydrology to increase the quantity and quality of their products. Some companies are even looking into the use of agricultural robots to reduce the amounts of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers required. What remains unchanged is the challenge of integrating the technology making it affordable, accessible, usable and reliable. ESG is now a familiar term, especially since the pandemic pushed food and food production to the top of everyone’s agenda. ESG hasfiltered through to every aspect of agriculture and agribusiness and coupled with block chain technology, both consumers and businesses can now know the product origin, how it was grown, shipped and stored. Furthermore, consumers are holding farmers and suppliers accountable for production and resource practices.
The event was well-represented by growers, producers, suppliers, educators and students, totalling over 300 attendees. However it was apparent from the presenters that things have shifted slightly. Sustainable farming practices and regenerative agriculture comes top of the list and although Canadian growers are considered environmental stewards, public trust in their products is paramount to the advancement of the industry. Gaining and maintaining this trust can be done through transparency of the farm to table process. There has also been an increase in plant based protein sales supporting the fact that many consumers are conscious of their carbon footprint. Additionally, consumers are now pushing back on agriculture companies to show their commitment to regenerative agriculture and climate-positive practices. As a consequence, companies are looking to reduce waste especially when a staggering 58 percent of food produce is wasted. Solutions include decreasing waste in areas of food production, packaging and improving efficiencies in areas of product handling, storage and transportation.
Food Safety Concerns
Supply Chain Management and security issues remain a concern. This is backed by a KPMG report which states that since the start of the pandemic, 34 percent of consumers are more concerned about food safety than before. With 80 percent of food and vegetables being imported, it becomes imperative to ensure product safety and quality, provenance and nutritional value. As an indirect consequence of the recent Russia/ Ukraine conflict not only will there will be supply shortages but global food prices are set to increase meaning that food insecurity (e.g. availability of food and individuals' ability to access it) will rise across Canada. One answer to this is an increase in local supply chains and production. The Financial Post reports a pilot project for a vertical farm in Nunavut and that Quebec has earmarked $91 million to double the volume of its indoor production of fruit and vegetables, which is just the start.
Labour shortages and the future workforce is an area where we need to be proactive. As one in eight jobs are related to agriculture and it is predicted that by 2029 there will be 123,000 more jobs in the agriculture sector than people to work them, a solution is needed. Furthermore, attracting and retaining talent is critical to a strong future for the agriculture and agribusiness industry. While the pandemic was partly responsible for worker shortages, where many were forced into isolation, it is also the fact that people, especially the younger generation, are becoming less inclined to work on farms. Employers can assist with changing perceptions by improving safety protocols and providing areas for growth. Schools and educators can help by promoting agricultural careers and building awareness of opportunities. In this way the next generation can see the potential in the agriculture and agribusiness sector, meshing their financial acumen with cutting edge technology, embracing sustainability and challenging the status quo.
While Canada is currently in a financially uncertain time, the economy is doing better than expected, with growth forecasted for 2022. With agriculture and agribusiness playing a pivotal role in driving the economy, this is positive news for this sector.