Agriculture’s big challenges won’t end when the pandemic does

Longstanding problems are still there but we’ve learned lessons that can be applied, say senior officials

The pandemic started out with fear – including empty supermarket shelves in rich countries like France due to hoarding (at top), and brought many tragedies – including outbreaks in Alberta’s meatpacking plants (at bottom).

The ag sector will require some fresh approaches to old problems if Canadian producers hope to remain competitive in a post-pandemic world.

“All of the things we were worried about post-pandemic are exactly the same things we were worried about pre-pandemic,” said Simon Kennedy, deputy minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada.

Trade conflicts, climate change, technology adoption, and government regulations are all issues that need to be dealt with, Kennedy said during a panel discussion hosted by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

“A lot of the kinds of pressures and issues that are intruding on the rest of the economy are exactly the same pressures and issues intruding on agriculture and agri-food,” he said. “But we’ve really got to take those seriously — they’re existential issues that are going to affect competitiveness and prosperity long-term.”

Canada’s ag and food sector needs to be forward thinking, said Ted Bilyea, chief strategy officer of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

“Canada’s agri-food system, including industry actions and government policies, has become reactionary — responding to outside pressures, rather than setting its own agenda,” he said.

Canada deserves to be a leader in global agriculture and food, said Chris Forbes, deputy minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

“We do have a good story to tell, and we do tell it abroad — the safety of our food, the quality of our food, our overall environmental performance,” he said.

“But we can always do better, and I would like to underscore the importance of speaking with a collective voice on what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and making sure that’s well-understood abroad.”

That should include showcasing the efforts of the ag sector to mitigate the effects of climate change, he added.

“I think there’s a lot of good work that goes on in the ag sector that needs to be recognized and deepened,” said Forbes.

It’s noteworthy that the attention on climate change didn’t get “put on the back-burner” during the pandemic, said Kennedy.

“The exact opposite has happened internationally,” he said. “If anything, there’s been a lot of wind in the sails of the notion that we have to take systemic risks very seriously.”

The pandemic has also been a time when the Prairies have exported record amounts of grains and oilseeds, thanks in large part to investment in infrastructure and technology. photo: Paterson Global Foods

Often, environmental regulations are seen as constraints, but they will need to be “fully embraced” by the ag sector if it hopes to remain productive, said Christine Hogan, deputy minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, who cited the loss in biodiversity in particular.

“The science is very clear that global biodiversity loss is in serious decline, and this is having a direct and significant impact on agricultural production,” she said. “It will be important to identify opportunities for achieving food production objectives that maintain and even improve Canadian indicators of biodiversity on agricultural lands. Biodiversity is our very best ally, in many ways, against climate change.”

Climate change may also create some opportunities, Kennedy added.

“The trick is we’re going to have to figure out how to live with it, adapt to it, and mitigate it, and do that in ways that actually contribute to our country’s prosperity and way of life.”

One thing that has changed since COVID-19 arrived is the adoption of new technology.

“We saw more digital adoption in the last 18 months than we’ve seen perhaps in the last 10 years,” said Kennedy. “It became an existential threat that if you weren’t able to go digital, you were actually going to go out of business.”

And there will be big gains over the next five years from efficiencies gained from big data analytics and digital technologies, such as machine learning, he said.

“In some respects, whatever it is you’re producing isn’t where you’re going to get your competitive advantage,” he said. “It’s going to come from how you do business and your ability to use information better than the next guy.”

But that all hinges on improved rural broadband and Kennedy said he expects to see “a really big chunk of the rural broadband issue solved in the next four or five years.”

“We’re spending 10 to 15 times more in total on broadband expansion over the last three or four years and in the next few years than we’ve spent in any program combined since the government got into this area.”

“Sustainable growth to create a thriving, resilient, and adaptable agri-food system will be knowledge- and data-intensive, both between various sectors and in partnerships imperative in building trust and sharing knowledge and data,” added Bilyea.

But government and the private sector will need to join forces, he said.

“The nature and complexity of future and current issues require meaningful public-private partnerships,” he said. “For the agri-food system to produce the desired joint outcomes, silos in government, academia, and industry need to come down.”

The pandemic has shown both the benefits of working together and the need to be vigilant.

“One of the things that the pandemic has taught us is that we’ve got to take systemic risks really seriously,” said Kennedy.

“Systemic risks tend to respect only one thing. They don’t care what your beliefs are, they don’t really care what your priorities are. If you’re not conforming to the evidence and the data, you’re going to pay a big price.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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