The annual event, the biggest agriculture show in Canada, now draws 130,000 farmers and agriculture specialists, and is becoming a showcase of innovation. It was also the stage this week for the latest #RBCDisruptors, our monthly forum on technology and how it’s changing the world around us.
“If we don’t embrace technology, we can’t compete,” said one of our panelists, Murad Al-Katib, the president and CEO of Regina-based AGT Food Ingredients, now the world’s largest distributor of lentils, peas and chickpeas.
Agtech is among the hottest areas in innovation right now, spanning everything from automated fishing and artificial beef to grains and protein, an area Saskatchewan wants to transform. Al-Katib’s vision: to build a “Protein Highway” that would connect the Prairies, through the port of Churchill, to billions of emerging middle-class consumers in Asia.
Call it the Silicon Valley of soil. Working with the University of Regina, other large companies and investors, Al-Katib’s group is one of nine finalists in a national competition for federal money to build so-called “superclusters” in research areas where Canada can be a world leader.
The science is there. So are the challenges:
The new scale game isn’t about land; it’s about data. With sensors now attached to everything that moves, from livestock to plant stalks, competition is fierce for the biggest, and best managed, data sets. They’re needed to help machines learn the optimal way to run a farm.
“Farmers need to understand how the data is used,” said Kim Keller, Co-Founder of Farm at Hand, a Vancouver-based company that runs a free, cloud-based app to help farmers run their operations through mobile devices. Right now, “they have no idea if the data will benefit them or not.”
The threat to NAFTA is not the only market access challenge for Canadian producers and processors. “We need to think and look at the rest of the world, at markets such as South America and Asia,” said Ian Meier, the CEO and co-founder of Saskatoon-based Bitstrada Systems Inc.
Meier was recently in Germany, where the intensity of farming impressed him. And Canada now has preferred access to Europe, through the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
But in a world that will add another 2-3 billion people in the next few decades, most eyes are on Asia. With its booming middle class – and more demand for protein – Asia will be the top market as food demand globally increases by a projected 70% by 2050.
Other countries like Australia and New Zealand are moving fast to secure better access to those markets. Canada needs to, too.
Business strategists often fret about their products being commoditized. Tell that to a commodity producer.
Al-Katib is trying to build a global enterprise based on quality. Not easy when you’re shipping your produce in giant bins and competing on the ground with Indian lentils. But he thinks technology has an answer. Using blockchain to enable every device in the world to know instantly what every other device is recording, he sees a new world of food distribution. Blockchain could allow a lentils dealer in Mumbai, for instance, to know where, when and how a batch was produced. Consumers, scanning food in a store, would know the same. “When we embed in technology, we embed in traceability,” he said.
If Canada ups our quality game, distributed technology would be our game-changer.
The tech world has evolved into a winner-takes-all economy, in which global giants are devouring all the companies in their way. Yet innovative economic clusters thrive on entrepreneurs. In fact, that’s all they thrive on.
“We tend to focus on large companies, when small ones are driving innovation,” Keller noted. “We need to focus on building an ecosystem: start, flourish and have the companies stay in Saskatchewan.”
It may seem obvious that agtech’s success depends on farmers – a bit like health tech and nurses – but they’re often the forgotten link in the chain. Too often, agtech is developed with everything but the farmer in mind. “Technology isn’t used by farmers because it’s not easy enough,” Meier said.
Keller designed her Farm at Hand app with the mantra, “big fingers, bad eyes,” to ensure big buttons that are adequately spaced out. Even then, she said her app’s biggest competition is pen and paper.
A greater tech challenge for many farmers lies beyond an app developer’s control. Most machinery, and therefore data, is designed and managed by the global equipment giants – and often their systems don’t integrate very well.
The profile of farmers is changing, too. No more American Gothic. Tomorrow’s farmer will need to be part techie, part globalist, part futurist.
One input that will be in greater demand: Diversity. More women, more new Canadians, more people who maybe didn’t grow up on the land. As Keller noted, “agtech takes the gender out of farming.”
“We have a long way to go,” Meier said, “but we’re in the right direction.”
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