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February 6 2020

Canada’s Agriculture Summit: Major Themes and Key Takeaways

On January 16, 2020, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce hosted Canada’s Agriculture Summit, welcoming over 550 attendees from across the country. It was a unique opportunity for industry leaders, policy makers, and the public to convene and engage in a conversation about how Canada can nourish the world ‘AND’ have sustainable agricultural practices, while remaining competitive on the global stage.

Canada’s Agriculture Summit was a natural extension of the Calgary Chamber’s ‘AND’ conversation, which asserts that Canada can be a world leader in natural resource development AND climate change innovation.

Building on our inaugural Natural Resources Summit in the fall of 2019, we set out to achieve three key things with the agriculture summit:

  1. Demonstrate the significance of agriculture and agri-foods to the Canadian economy;
  2. Work towards alignment on advocacy and forming a unified vision on sustainable best practices within the industry; and
  3. Demonstrate how the agricultural industry is accounting for environmental, social, and corporate governance to measure sustainable and ethical impact of investments.

The summit delivered on these goals.

The Story

Agriculture is a central pillar of Canada’s economy and history

Agriculture has played a central role in the Canadian economy and our nation’s history since before confederation. Fast forward to 2020, those gathered at Canada’s Agriculture Summit joined in the celebration and recognition that the industry has and can continue to nourish the world, using sustainable practices and remaining globally competitive.

For Canadians from coast to coast to coast, the importance of the agricultural industry is clear. It provides a livelihood for 2.3 million Canadians, whose hard work enables the agriculture industry to contribute over $110 billion to the Canadian economy each year, and account for 6.7 per cent of GDP. As the fifth largest exporter of agriculture products in the world, Canada is essential to meeting global demand for food. We are the largest exporter of canola and pulses, the third largest exporter of pork, and the fourth largest exporter of wheat.

The industry is full of Canadians like Spencer Hilton, a keynote speaker at the summit and Co-Owner and Farmer at Hilton Ventures & Origin Malting and Brewing Co. His family has farmed near Strathmore, Alberta for five generations. Since 1910, the Hilton operation has not only supported the family, but has fed generations of Canadians and global markets by exporting their products.

Sustainable agriculture is key to fighting climate change

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. The discussions at Canada’s Agriculture Summit proved we can fight it through sustainable agriculture practices.

During his fireside chat with Sandip Lalli, President and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Chuck Magro, President and CEO of Nutrien provided a clear definition of sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is industry answering how the food system will adjust to a changing climate, and if we can feed a growing population.

Through sustainable agriculture, the industry can actively contribute to the fight against climate change. Magro noted that an estimated 80 billion tons of carbon has been kept in our soil over the past fifty years thanks to technological advancements in both crop production methods and fertilizer management.

Also critical in the fight against climate change are the advancements in our understanding of soil health. Research shows that current soil in Alberta contains high levels of minerals, which significantly contribute to its carbon capture capacity. Spencer Hilton, and Michael Hoffort, President and CEO, Farm Credit Canada added that since 2011, producers contribute 100kg per hectare of organic matter to our soil annually, resulting in soil that is healthier than at the time of first use.

The focus on environmental, sustainability, and governance (ESG) factors are not simply a trend, Chuck Magro pointed out, but rather represent a structural shift in preferences for both investors and consumers. From this perspective, the industry is well-positioned to continue to invest in and deliver sustainable practices.

The challenge, as we heard throughout the day, emerges when telling this story to a Canadian public that has become increasingly distant from how their food is produced. As Scott Bolton, President & CEO, UFA, Ken Keelor, President & CEO, Calgary Co-op, and Sébastien Léveillé, CEO of Sollio Agriculture noted, cooperatives could provide the bridge by forging stronger connections between the producer and the consumer.

“Sustainable agriculture is industry answering how the food system will adjust to a changing climate, and if we can feed a growing population” – Chuck Magro, President and CEO of Nutrien

From this role for cooperatives, to the recognition that we have the tools today to engage in sustainable agriculture, Canada’s agriculture industry is poised to lead the next generation of production and technological innovation.

The future of agriculture: human ingenuity and technological innovation

While agriculture has been at the centre of Canada’s history, it has also been very responsive to change and able to keep up with, and even set, the pace of innovation. Spencer Hilton and his fifth-generation family farm, for example, have leveraged advancements in seeding technologies, data integration, and soil management to yield three to four times more grain per acre than was possible in the 1950s. Developments that are occurring at farms like Hilton Ventures have placed agriculture in the midst of a technological revolution.

The future of agriculture is increasingly backed by data and evolving science, where emerging applications in, machine learning, along with digital monitoring technologies and genomic applications such as CRISPR will enable agricultural operations to yield higher outputs using substantially less inputs. However, as shared by Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of CFL Ranches and Director at Calgary Stampede, early adoption of new technologies can be challenging due to regulatory barriers.

Nevertheless, the potential of these technologies is already being realized today. Michael Hoffort shared that we are producing 32 per cent more beef using 25 per cent less land and 17 per cent less water, while producing 15 per cent less greenhouse gases.

As agriculture companies adapt more data-driven practices, they will require a workforce who is highly skilled, innovative, and able to work with large, complex data sets. In his closing remarks, Michael Hoffort, spoke about the next generation of agriculture, including how farmers under 40 years old have borrowed more than $3 billion from Farm Credit Canada between 2011 and 2016. During the same time, producers under 35 years old have increased by a thousand.

Meanwhile, the presence and power of youth in agriculture is reflected across Canada. Over 30,000 students are enrolled in post-secondary agricultural programs; an increase of 29 per cent over the last decade and outpacing the 21 per cent growth experienced across all other programs. Canada is home to world-class agricultural programs across the country, from the University of British Columbia, to Olds College in Alberta, to the University of Guelph in Ontario; these programs will play an important role in developing the next generation of Canadian producers.

This is not to say that the future of agriculture does not come without challenges. To continue to feed and nourish the world, Canadian agriculture and agri-food industries require unity in voice, as well as increased communication and partnerships between government, academia, and civil society.

Examples of agricultural innovation

CRISPR is a technique that is applied to selective breeding, enabling scientists to adapt a plant’s genomic structure to achieve desirable traits. Early applications of CRISPR in crop science have allowed scientists to “silence” the genome that detects cold weather, allowing the crops to continue growing through early autumn frosts.

Machine learning, big data, and high-performance computing have created new opportunities to quantify agricultural operations. Together, these technologies contribute significantly to crop production through improved yield predictions, crop quality, and disease and weed detection.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) sensors and tracking can be used to track agricultural products from the field to the store, providing the consumer with more detail on the food they consume. Technologies like this could increase trust for producers and their ability to provide quality produce.

The takeaway

Reaching full potential will require collaboration

From Curt Vossen’s introductory keynote to Michael Hoffort’s closing remarks, the sentiment during the summit was clear: the agricultural industry needs to develop a unified voice on what is required to nourish the world AND foster sustainable development. Creating a united voice is imperative to the future of agriculture and agri-foods.

For Jeff Vassart, President, Cargill Limited, rallying around a consistent voice would be the first step in building trust between industry and the public, which is critical to countering misinformation around the industry. In addition to a national shared voice, Chuck Magro, advocated for a global standard on industry best practices to foster sustainable development.

To this end, the agricultural industry could borrow from other Canadian industry approaches to sustainable practices. The Canadian mining industry, for example, has a holistic approach via the Towards Sustainable Mining initiative, which has been adopted by international mining associations and is setting the standard for global best practices in sustainable development. The Canadian forestry industry has adopted a similar scope to guide its best practices, with Forest Products Association of Canada leading the way in environmental stewardship, sustainable practices and innovative development.

Moving forward, Canadian agriculture must be able to do what it does best – produce and export world-class products. A priority shared by the Calgary Chamber, panelists, and keynote speakers was the need to improve our infrastructure and supply chain. Without appropriate port capacity or rail transport, our ability to access global markets is limited, and therefore has a negative impact on industry growth.

In addition, digital infrastructure, such as 5G connectivity will be required for new technologies to be applied effectively on the farm. For the Canadian agricultural industry to fully maximize its potential, it must have the necessary digital infrastructure in rural communities to succeed in the 21st century.

Further to this, trade deals such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CTPP), the Canada-European Union: Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), and the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement are positive actions. The Calgary Chamber has advocated for these agreements, noting that Canada should capitalize on the advantage of both agreements and consolidate our position in these important markets. We’ve engaged with key policymakers and underlined the importance of market access as a key issue for Canadian business.

Going forward we’ll continue to strongly support the elimination of trade barriers, and the development of new international trade agreements, because Canada will need to extend partnerships beyond multilateral agreements to fully penetrate market access for our goods. This includes, for example, capitalizing on our first mover advantage in markets such as Japan or advancing opportunities into South America and China.

For the agricultural industry to continue to lead and grow, it will need the support of government to effectively create regulations that support a holistic approach to agricultural development, such that all participants in the agricultural value chain have the means to prosper.

The sentiment during the summit was clear: the agricultural industry needs to develop a unified voice on what is required to nourish the world AND foster sustainable development. Creating a unified voice is imperative to the future of agriculture and agri-foods.

The path forward

What business can do

The business community can work to align on advocacy and develop a unified voice, in order to build trust between all stakeholders. It can also lead or participate in the development of a global standard for industry best practices.

What government can do

Governments at all levels must demonstrate the political will to actively promote policies in support of sustainable agricultural development. These include improving infrastructure, removing trade barriers, and incentivizing the development and implementation of technology and best practices in environmental stewardship to combat climate change.

What academia can do

From academia, the industry needs continued support in providing evidence-based science on industry practices. Furthermore, academia will be crucial in closing the talent and skills gap for the agriculture industry of the future, which will need high-skilled labour to address the changing market conditions.

What civil society can do

Consumers are a large driver behind sustainability and best practices. Consumer choice is a powerful factor behind the direction the industry chooses to take. Civil society can be an active and willing participant to engage in the AND conversation on Canada’s role in nourishing the world AND ensuring sustainable development.

The rally cry

Canada’s agriculture and agri-foods industry are poised for strong global leadership now and into the future. We have the human ingenuity, the technology, and the best practices within our borders. Canada needs more Canada.

Today, we can have energy development AND solve climate change.

We can nourish the world AND have sustainable agricultural practices.

We can be in business AND be socially accountable to the communities in which we operate.

We look forward to cultivating partnerships that enable the sustainable growth and prosperity of the industry.

We look forward to sharing Canada’s knowledge and technologies with the world to further assist in the fight against climate change and set best practices.

Building on the success of Our Natural Resources Summit in October, and Canada’s Agriculture Summit, our work continues to create the framework and proposal for a vision for all our natural resources.

“As the Podium of Record for the community, it is our privilege as the Calgary Chamber to convene business leaders, decision makers, and thought leaders to influence the path forward for agriculture and agri-foods. Together, we will continue to advance the conversation that Canada can lead in natural resource development AND innovative practices to build a sustainable future.” – Sandip Lalli, President & CEO, Calgary Chamber of Commerce

Please continue the conversation in person and online. Follow us on Twitter @CalgaryChamber and use the hashtag #OurNaturalResources to share your thoughts on these important issues.