In the 2019 Nourish Network Trend Report, we explored eleven critical trends that we believed would impact the Canadian food industry ecosystem this year. Among them were three agriculture-specific trends: Shifts in Canada’s International Agri-food Industry, the Shift to Precision Agriculture, and a Shift in Public Trust of Canadian Agriculture.
As we head into 2020, we’re following up on how these Canadian agriculture trends are playing out.
Trade makes for tough economics in the agri-food sector
International trade in Canadian agricultural products has been perhaps the single largest driver of the health of the Canadian agri-food sector in 2019. Recently, Canada’s long-standing relationship with China has been problematic. Political tensions related to US/China relations have halted Canadian exports of many agricultural products, including soybeans, canola and meat products.
In a recent article, the Financial Post notes that Canadian farmers are in the process of harvesting about 6 million tonnes of soybeans. With the China market shut off, and the risk of being crowded out of other markets by the US, farmers have few places to turn. It remains to be seen whether the Canadian government will offer any aid to Canadian soybean growers affected by the embargo, as has happened in the United States. According to the Post, the US$28 billion aid package from Washington has reduced the strain of the trade wars for many American farmers. For US soybean farmers, aid has lifted the market price to about US$10.13/bushel, allowing them to sell at prices so low, Canadian producers are struggling to compete.
There is some good news on the meat front – on November 5th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the lifting of China’s ban on imports of Canadian pork and beef. The ban has most certainly been costing Canadian livestock producers significantly; Canadian pork producers export roughly 20 percent of their output to China, making it the second-largest market for Canadian pork products.
The full financial effects on the Canadian ag economy are not yet known but are expected to be significant. With relations with China not yet stabilized, and the proposed Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) still to be ratified, expect trade to continue to be a headline issue in 2020.
Leading with precision agriculture
We've got good news on this front. Canadian companies are playing a leading role in the development of new and better precision agricultural technologies that benefit producers in Canada and around the world.
Precision agriculture uses data-gathering technologies (like drones, satellite imagery, and sensors), analytics and precise application control to optimize the use of farm inputs. Matching farm practices to the specific needs of the soil and crops brings economic, agronomic, and environmental benefits.
According to Paul Shorthouse of the Delphi Group, while Canada’s agri-food sector is growing, so too is the environmental risk from increasing greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts, such as nutrient run-off into waterways. That’s where precision agriculture has a perfect fit – optimizing farm management practices and input use, and ultimately benefiting both crop production and the environment.
CropLife Canada has identified several areas where precision agriculture is already paying dividends for Canadian farmers:
Drones - used to capture high-resolution images and provide real-time data to farmers, allowing for continuous monitoring of a crop from planting to harvest, under almost any weather conditions.
Sensors - placed in fields to capture crop data and evaluate crop health. They also assist in soil analysis, using data gathered in different areas of a farm to determine soil nutrient and water levels throughout the growing season to help farmers know when and where additional inputs are needed.
Precision machinery - equipment using data provided by drones, sensors or data that is input manually to work out the exact amounts of pesticides and other inputs that a crop in a specific area needs. GPS guidance allows for targeted applications of pesticides to be made in the right locations, increasing farming efficiency to ensure pesticides and other inputs are only applied where needed.
Improved seed varieties - adapted to specific geographies to help crops thrive in the face of changing climate conditions, pest pressures and other physical or biological stresses.
It’s tough to get a precise measure on the adoption of precision ag, but judging by the number of start-ups in this sector, and the interest from venture capital firms and investors, the shift to precision agriculture appears to be on a solid track for future growth and mainstream adoption.
Pushing for greater public trust of Canadian agriculture
There is a concerning trend emerging around food/ag trust and Canadian consumers. The general public, while they are more interested in their food than ever before, has drifted farther from where it’s grown, produced, and processed. These “disconnected” consumers have a perception of how food is or should be grown that often doesn’t reflect the reality of Canada’s agriculture and food system.
The public’s eroded trust is concerning for the Canadian agricultural sector. It is significant enough that the federal government’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food has undertaken a study on the public perception of the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector. The aim is to probe and analyze challenges and opportunities for the sector, steps taken by both industry and government to build public trust, and what other actions are worth considering. In the words of the National Farmers Union, “The Committee would also like to open up the conversation between farmers, ranchers and producers, and the civil society to break down the silos that persist in the agricultural sector.”
The study isn’t complete, but the fact that the government views the subject as a priority is a strong indication that this is a trend worth watching.
Other groups, specifically the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity or CCFI, continue to work to find ways to better connect farmers, processors, retailers and consumers, and to build trust and confidence in our food system.
We'll report on highlights and new Canadian agriculture trends from CCFI’s annual Public Trust Summit, held on November 13 and 14 in Saskatoon, in a future Nourish Report. Stay tuned!