In the 2019 Nourish Network Trend Report, we covered three trends/shifts that we believed would impact the Canadian agricultural sector this year and into the future – Canada’s international agri-food industry, precision agriculture, and the public’s trust of Canadian agriculture.
As we head into 2020, we’re following up on how these trends are playing out.
Trade makes for tough economics in agri-food sector
International trade in Canadian agricultural products has been perhaps the single largest driver of the health of the Canadian agri-food sector in 2019. Canada’s relationship with China has, to say the least, been problematic. Political tensions related to US/China relations (most notably the detainment of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities at the request of the US) have halted Canadian exports of many agricultural products, including soybeans, canola and meat products (although the ban on meat products is at least notionally related to a forged inspection document found on a pork shipment).
In a recent article, the Financial Post notes that Canadian farmers are in the process of harvesting about 6 million tonnes of soybeans. With the China market shut off, and the risk of being crowded out of other markets by the US, farmers have few places to turn. It remains to be seen whether the Canadian government will offer any type of aid to Canadian soybean growers affected by the embargo, as the US has done. According to the Post, the US$28 billion aid package from Washington has eased the pain of the trade wars for many American farmers. For US soybean farmers, aid has lifted the market price to roughly US$10.13/bushel, allowing them to sell at lower prices and frustrating producers in Canada.
There is some good news on the meat front – on November 5th Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that China’s ban on imports of Canadian pork and beef has been lifted. The ban has most certainly been costing Canadian livestock producers significantly. For example, Canadian pork producers export roughly 20 per cent of their pork to China, making it the second largest market for Canadian pork products.
The financial effects on the Canadian ag economy are not yet known but are expected to be significant. And with relations with China not yet stabilized, and the proposed Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) still to be ratified, expect trade to continue to be a headline issue in 2020.
Leading with precision agriculture
There is good news on this front. Canadian companies are playing a leading role in the development of new and better precision agricultural technologies that benefit producers in Canada and around the world.
Precision agriculture uses data gather technologies (drones, satellite imagery, sensors), analytics and precise application control to optimize the use of farm inputs. Matching farm practices to precise needs of the soil and crops brings economic, agronomic and environmental benefits.
According to Paul Shorthouse of the Delphi Group, while Canada’s agri-food sector is growing, so too is the environmental risk from increasing greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts, such as nutrient run-off into waterways. That’s where precision agriculture has a perfect fit — — optimizing farm management practices and input use, and ultimately benefitting both crop production and the environment.
CropLife Canada has identified several areas where precision agriculture is already paying dividends for Canadian farmers.
Drones – used to capture high resolution images and provide real-time data to farmers, allowing for the permanent monitoring of a crop from planting to harvest, under almost any weather conditions.
Sensors – placed in fields to capture crop data and evaluate crop health. They can also assist in soil analysis, using data gathered in different areas of the farm to determine soil nutrient and water levels throughout the growing season to help farmers know when and where additional inputs are needed.
Precision machinery – uses data provided by drones, sensors or data that is input manually to work out the exact amounts of pesticides and other inputs that a crop in a specific area needs. GPS guidance allows for targeted applications of pesticides to be made in the right locations, increasing farming efficiency to ensure pesticides and other inputs are only applied where needed.
Improved seed varieties – adapted to specific geographies to help crops thrive in the face of changing climate conditions, pest pressures and other physical or biological stresses.
It’s tough to get a precise measure on the adoption of precision ag, but judging by the number of start-ups in this sector – and the interest from venture capital firms and investors – the shift to precision agriculture appears to be on a solid track for future growth and mainstream adoption.
Pushing for greater public trust of Canadian agriculture
There is a concerning trend emerging around food/ag trust and Canadian consumers. The general public, while they are more interested in their food than ever before, has drifted farther from where it’s grown, produced and processed. These “disconnected” consumers have a perception of how food is or should be grown that often doesn’t reflect the reality of Canada’s agriculture and food system.
The public’s trust or lack thereof is concerning for the Canadian agricultural sector and is significant enough that the federal government’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food has undertaken a study on the public perception of the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector. The Committee seeks to understand the challenges and opportunities for the sector, measures taken by industry and government to improve public trust, and what other measures should be taken. The Committee would also like to open up the conversation between farmers, ranchers and producers and the civil society to break down the silos that persist in the agricultural sector.
The study isn’t complete, but the fact that the government views the subject as a priority is a strong indication that this will be a trend worth watching.
Other groups, specifically the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity or CCFI (www.foodintegrity.ca/), continue to work to find ways to better connect farmers, processors, retailers and consumers, and to build trust and confidence in our food system. We will report on highlights and new trends from CCFI’s annual Public Trust Summit, being held November 13 to 14 in Saskatoon, in a future Nourish Report.
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