How Canadian agriculture can help feed the world

By Murad Al-Katib

President and CEO, AGT Food and Ingredients Inc.

World Food Day — founded by the UN in 1945 and held every October 16 since 1981 — was established to increase awareness of world hunger and poverty, and inspire solutions for world change.

This year’s World Food Day is focused on helping the world recover from the COVID-19 crisis and develop robust food systems that can withstand economic and climatic volatility, provide for food system workers, and deliver nutritious, affordable and sustainable diets for all.

COVID-19 has had a major effect on the way we think about food. Panic buying and empty store shelves opened our eyes to the need for planning. Governments had relied on the private sector to produce essential commodities, food companies to develop nutritious products for consumers, and retailers to distribute them to customers.

COVID-19 has challenged our reliance on the private-sector food supply chain, forcing governments to refocus on maintaining buffer stocks, remove barriers limiting agricultural trade, and develop policies that balance domestic supports for farmers with affordable access to staple foods.

Global population growth will add two more billion people by 2050, which, combined with rising consumption in emerging markets, will continue to create demand for clean, sustainable protein.

In recent decades, the world’s agricultural productivity has improved dramatically. We now produce more food than we need to feed everyone on Earth.

But issues like environmental degradation, loss of agro-biological diversity, food loss and waste, and a lack of food security, including control of availability and food inflation, show that our food systems are out of balance.

As countries develop and implement their COVID-19 recovery plans, Canada has an opportunity to help tip the scales back. We are in a unique position to lead the charge on feeding the world’s growing population and meeting the needs of future consumers.

Agriculture has always been an important sector of the Canadian economy, and we are blessed with two major assets that the world is short of: fresh water and arable land.

To make the most of its advantages, Canada must focus on adding value to our agricultural output before it reaches the marketplace.

Historically, Canadian growers have grown their products here, then shipped them to larger centres for processing. By processing these raw materials at their origin, we can capture their value locally and provide value-added foods, ingredients and semi-refined products directly to the marketplace.

Technology will play a key factor in this success. Our farmers are among the best in the world and are early adopters of game-changing technology. Cutting-edge digital technologies, including precision agriculture, data collection sensors, analytics and AI (artificial intelligence), can improve output and quality and reduce pesticide and herbicide use.

The combination of agronomy, seed genetics and digital technology can improve productivity and sustainability all along the supply chain. This combination is out of the reach of a one-acre farm in an emerging market, but Canada has the tools and the scale to achieve it.

To fully capitalize on increased global demand for protein and maintain competitiveness, Canada must also build world-class trade infrastructure that integrates roads, rail, ports, containers and intermodal to ensure Canadians can get their products to the global marketplace reliably and cost-effectively.

Canadians are known for being innovative and co-operative, with universities and research organizations willing to partner with the private sector to develop and commercialize innovative products, including zero-carbon fertilizers, new crop varieties and plant-based products and proteins.

The Protein Industries Canada supercluster is one such initiative. Headquartered in Regina, this ambitious project will deploy $152 million in federal funds over three years and leverage over $250 million in industry investments. These investments help ambitious farmers seize the opportunity to make Canada the “First Stop on the Protein Highway”.

This is a generational opportunity for Canadian agriculture, one that will be as important as the arrival of the pioneers to the Prairies.

Canada’s role as a global agricultural powerhouse will be tied to our ability to provide sustainable food to the world for generations.

We have the opportunity—and the duty—to feed the world.