Alberta’s agri-food sector can be a ‘global mega-power’

A University of Calgary report says Alberta has potential for a ‘winning hand’ in the international agri-food sector.
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Alberta “is sitting in an ideal position” to be a major player in the international agri-food sector if it seizes the day, says a new report.

But the province needs to develop a value-added industry, focus on sustainability and leverage trade deals that the country has negotiated, says the report from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

“Alberta has the building blocks to be a global mega-power,” says the report.

Specifically, those strengths include “abundant natural resources, a strong network of research and development facilities, one of the lowest users of pesticides per-hectare regions in the world, political stability, and goodwill to encourage investment, a growing primary and secondary processing sector, a respected regulatory system, and access to a sophisticated, ethnically diverse consumer base.”

That gives the province a winning hand, it says.

“When properly nurtured with enhanced technology and focused investment, growth and success will be the outcome,” predicts the report, authored by Kim McConnell (founder of AdFarm and a well-known figure in the province’s ag scene) and Karen Spencer of the School of Public Policy.

Although Alberta has recently taken a backseat to its Prairie neighbours in areas such as pulse processing, its food-processing and manufacturing sector grew at an annual rate of 2.8 per cent in the last decade and that was almost twice the rate of other parts of the economy outside of the energy sector.

But a shift in mindset is still needed, it says.

“Today, much of Alberta’s agri-food industry is commodity-centric,” the report states. “More than half of all crops and livestock products are exported to another country to be processed, and then finished products are imported back here for sale. Jobs and economic value will grow by increasing ingredient processing within Alberta, with a goal of moving to branded food manufacturing.

“And along the way there is ample opportunity for the development of new byproduct manufacturing, such as bioplastics made from crop starches.”

In addition to making products from commodities (“think pasta, beer, prosciutto”), resources such as natural gas and water can be leveraged to help the value-added sector grow, the report states.

It also touts opportunities in carbon sequestration in agriculture and says the province should take advantage of trade deals with Europe, Pacific nations and the U.S. and Mexico.

But it also says the provincial government should focus on removing obstacles, especially streamlining regulations for processors and improving the investment climate.

“Alberta can do more to create the proper investment environment and take actions that will stimulate investment,” the report states. “Canada is currently ranked twenty-third in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, while New Zealand, the United States and Australia all rank higher. Alberta has to take some innovative approaches to enhancing its investment conditions.”

And the rollout of broadband internet in rural areas has to speed up, the report says.

“The speed at which Alberta can improve its broadband coverage into its rural areas directly affects the ability of Alberta farmers and ranchers to employ AI technologies, sensor use, and other precision agriculture automation applications — faster implementation will accelerate economic growth.”

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