Superclusters: Creating a silicon valley for agriculture and food

Two proposals from Western Canada are vying for backing in Ottawa’s 
bid to put Canada at the front of the new economy

Two agriculture and food initiatives are contenders for Ottawa’s billion-dollar plan to kick-start the nation’s new economy — but will it pick Big Data or plant-based proteins?
Reading Time: 6 minutes

So what would you rather have — new lucrative ‘plant protein’ markets or a way to turn Big Data into bigger profits?

Those are the goals of the two agriculture and agri-food proposals vying for a slice of $950 million of federal cash that Ottawa will spend on ‘superclusters’ — business-led collaborations that aim to turn innovative ideas into powerful engines of the Canadian economy.

Ron Styles. photo: File

“Canada needs to continue to be competitive on the world stage,” said Ron Styles, acting president of an organization backing a supercluster proposal to boost both production and processing of pulses and other crops in Western Canada.

“The whole idea is to increase economic growth. That is at the heart of it.”

Similarly, the Smart Agri-Food supercluster aims to greatly accelerate an existing trend — in this case, the use of Big Data — to make Canada a world leader.

Rob Davies. photo: File

“Farmers and ranchers have access to a lot of data and are generating a lot of data,” said Rob Davies, interim CEO of that initiative.

“So how do we make it simple to have that tracked through the value chain, allowing them to get paid for what they’re already doing and increasing the value proposition for them?

“How do we make it simple for all of the systems involved in our industry to communicate with each other and, at the end of the day, drive improvements in the value chain for everybody?”

Five spots, nine candidates

Both proposals have made a shortlist of nine finalists — winnowed down from more than 50 proposals involving more than 1,000 companies, organizations, and learning institutions. The federal Liberal government is due to make its final selection by the end of March, splitting the $950 million between five superclusters over the next five years.

The hope is that each will act as a catalyst in different economic sectors by concentrating innovation and entrepreneurship in the way Silicon Valley was able to power the development of software and computer technology.

“Through the superclusters initiative, we’ve started conversations and created solid partnerships between government, the private sector, academia, and communities,” Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, said in October when announcing the finalists.

“In today’s knowledge-based economy, this collaboration is essential.”

But while capturing two of the nine finalist spots shows agriculture and agri-food is prominent in the federal Liberals’ economic thinking, they face tough competition. Among the other finalists are proposals involving artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and transforming the mining, infrastructure, and aerospace sectors. There are also provincial interests to consider, with Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, and B.C. all having dogs in the hunt.

The backers of the two ag proposals both say Canada needs to leverage its strengths in food and farming.

“One of the critical pieces for Canada longer term is being able to drive ourselves forward in the agriculture and agri-food sector,” said Davies, who was previously CEO at Saskatchewan’s Weyburn Inland Terminal.

“There’s an opportunity for Canadian agriculture to step into a leadership position in a number of areas.”

One of the key advantages of the supercluster approach is “allowing all these pieces to talk to each other in a meaningful way and work together on meaningful solutions,” added Styles, who is acting president of Protein Industries Canada.

“There are a lot of great ideas, but there often isn’t a way to leverage that for larger markets,” he said. “All these groups have a good understanding of various sectors, and they have an idea of what they need.

“We’re the connecting point. We help them get together to do the work.”

Smart Agri-Food supercluster

Davies likens this supercluster to the adoption of auto steer — initially, the benefit seemed pretty limited to many farmers.

“‘I can drive my own tractor,’ they said. Once we saw the value proposition of less overlap and less use of fertilizers, it was a value proposition that made sense to producers. And now auto steer is incredibly common.”

Enhanced traceability is a little like that, Davies said.

“With traceability of food sources, right now they’re saying they don’t make money from it,” he said. “So how do we find a way to build systems that allow producers to be appropriately compensated? How do we get producers to say, ‘Obviously I’ll do that because the value proposition is there.’?”

The key to that is improving the way the agriculture industry works on a “digital platform basis,” he said.

The Smart Agri-Food supercluster has also a large number of backers, including Agrium, Telus, BIXSco, AgriTrend, FarmLead, Bayer Crop Science, Cargill, and other companies, policy groups, and academic institutions.

“The Smart Agri-Food cluster is really designed to build a backbone that will allow us to cross a lot of different industries, and sectors within our industry, and build links through the value chain to drive our performance over the longer term,” said Davies.

An existing pilot project that tracks cattle ‘from birth to burger’ is a good example of that.

“That’s a great chain of custody example on the livestock side, but we really struggle with that on the grain side,” he said. “Walmart has sustainability goals. General Mills has sustainability goals. At the end of the day, they want to be able to provide that traceability.

“How do we make that simple for producers so they can track the work they’re doing? We need to get all the systems talking to each other.”

The supercluster will focus on four different ‘innovation communities’ for its projects — digital technologies; sustainable livestock; genetics; and processing and the bioeconomy.

And the systems that come out of this supercluster will be “durable forever,” said Davies.

“It’s certainly a lofty goal, but it’s where agriculture is going to be,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re looking far enough ahead of the curve that we’re able to meet those objectives longer term.”

Protein Innovations Canada supercluster

Development of plant-based proteins has been taking place “for a long time,” but the sector is poised to take off, said Styles, because of population growth; an increasing scarcity of land and resources for livestock production; and growing consumer interest in plant-based proteins.

“This kind of population growth is very difficult to address solely with meat production,” he said. “Plant protein is going to have to be a larger and larger part of that base. We see a lot of that already developing in other countries. And this trend is going to continue.”

The two key crops for this market right now are canola and pulses, but others — such as hemp and quinoa — also have rich potential. But it’s not enough to grow these crops, there also needs to be domestic processing, said Styles.

“In Western Canada, we grow the crops, but we don’t extract the protein — we don’t get that value add,” he said. “There’s really no reason why we can’t be an international player in that part of the market. It’s large. It’s growing. We’re well positioned. It’s just a matter of building on that.”

This proposal has more than 125 supporters, including AGT Foods, Parmalat, Stantec, Viterra, Parrish & Heimbecker, Maple Leaf Foods, Loblaw, Microsoft, and many other companies, academic institutions, and policy groups.

“After the Phase 1 proposal was approved by the federal government, we had just over 60 different contributors and supporters,” said Styles. “By the time we got to the point of finishing off our Phase 2 submission, we had more than doubled the number of contributors and supporters. These are companies that have approached us to join and participate. They saw the opportunity that is here.”

The proposal is focused on four pillars — improving seed quality and yield; sustainable production; processing technology innovation; and commercialization.

Farmers would share in the benefits of making Canada a leader in the global plant protein sector, said Styles.

“We’re talking about a crop that, at the present time, we export as a fairly raw commodity,” he said. “By moving up the value chain, we’re going to end up getting more out of it, so primary producers should be able to benefit economically a lot more than they have been in the past.

“We think economically it should be very good for producers.”

Western Canada should be the “go-to location for crop protein in the future,” he added.

“It’s where it’s being produced. It’s where it should be processed. And it should be the place where the research, the technology, and the innovations are developing.”

About the author



Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.



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