A focus on carbon as the major driver of change in the agriculture and food system is too narrow and excludes other major issues in the sector.
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A panel of agriculture thinkers and researchers pointed to water demand, biodiversity, productivity and economic and social sustainability as areas that are neglected due to the single-minded focus by government on carbon reduction.
Why it matters: There’s tremendous opportunity for Canadian agriculture, but the focus must be on the diverse role the sector can play in the world’s economic future and growth, say researchers.
“I think often our conversation around the sustainability of production in the food system today is driven about carbon accounting and are we going to be net zero or net positive,” said Tyler McCann, managing director of the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute, during an Ivey Academy discussion. The Ivey Academy is part of the Ivey School of Business at Western University.
The discussion was presented in association with the Centre for Building for Sustainable Value at Ivey Business School.
“I really do think that when we think about the future of the food system, we really need to be thinking much more broadly than we are today,” he said.
Research funding priorities are shifting to put a priority on carbon, but McCann said that if there are new priorities, they should receive new money, instead of taking away from past priorities, which continue to be important.
“I think the federal government should be coming to the table with a significant additional investment and mission-driven research around the future and a sustainable food system.”
Research and technology in agriculture, and the ability to move more quickly from primary research to application on farms and in processing, is increasingly important but less funded.
“The assets we have go beyond the farm gate,” said Alison Sunstrum, founder and CEO of CNSRV-X and general partner in The51. She co-founded GrowSafe, a technology that allows for precision livestock feed measurement and is especially used by researchers.
Canada’s network of research universities provides a base for early-stage innovation and technology, but Canada severely lacks business spending on research and development, she said. That’s not new, and it extends into the agriculture sector.
Sunstrum pointed to the Netherlands, which geographically can fit within Banff National Park, and has half the population of Canada, yet is the second largest food exporter in the world at $150 billion per year.
Canada continues to grow its agriculture and food exports, now at about $80 billion per year. The Netherlands is reaching capacity with challenges around water and limitations on nutrient production on farms. Canada doesn’t have the same limitations.
“We have a chance to really take a step out and be the most sustainable, technologically advanced and farmer-friendly and farmer-profitable country,” said Sunstrum.
Lack of research and development investment in Canada is starting to have consequences, said McCann, and Canada must decide if it will continue to be a middle player or a leader in food.
“We are really starting to deal with the consequences of under-investment if you look at total factor productivity,” he said.
The impacts of Canadian agriculture across the economy and the globe are many and can be leveraged, the speakers said.
The agriculture sector delivers “resilient economic growth”, said Scott Ross, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
“We’ve been productivity superstars in the Canadian economy,” he said.
How does that success translate into how Canadian agriculture influences the rest of the world?
“Often we think about agriculture and food as a domestic challenge, but the future of the world is unsettled. The future of our global food production system is increasingly unsettled,” said McCann.
CAPI hosted a forum earlier this year that looked at the global change from food excess to food scarcity and what that means for farm policy.
“We are seeing this today where global reserves of key staple commodities have been historically low, especially compared to stocks to use ratio, and especially if you take what China is holding out of the equation,” said McCann.
Canada has an opportunity to be a significant player in helping the world manage that challenge, and McCann said the country could use its significant agriculture impact as a geopolitical lever.
“It should be about more than just opening markets, it should be about building better relationships. It should be about encouraging development. I want to make a plug that global leadership on food should be about a lot more than just exporting more food. It’s such a great, great opportunity.”
Sunstrum said everyone in Canada should know about the potential of Canadian agriculture and food.
“Canada is an agricultural nation, and every single child that comes out of school must be able to articulate that.”