The Big Read

Canada is losing ground in digital agriculture, industry experts say

Illustration by Scharfsinn86, iStock

In 2016, Jeff Torrie was in the process of taking over his father’s dairy and cash-crop farm in Grey County, Ont. By then, Torrie had been milking cows for 25 years, and his constantly aching body was causing him to doubt whether he should keep farming.

Not quite ready to give up the farm near Collingwood, Ont., which had been in the family since 1869, Torrie invested in four robots to milk the 140 cows, virtually eliminating human labour from the back-breaking process. “If we didn’t invest in new technology, there wasn’t going to be succession,” says Torrie. “That’s what it came down to.”

Torrie is among a growing number of farmers—of new and old generations alike—digitizing their facilities to boost production and limit the reliance on human labour. To stay competitive, or simply afloat in the tough sector, adopting digital agriculture technologies is increasingly considered essential.

Not only does “agtech” promise to increase food productivity amid population pressures and improve the lives of farmers, it presents promising opportunities for rural communities by attracting tech talent to Canada’s sleepier regions. Beyond that, there are clear signs that the global food supply chain is moving to cloud-based and, in some cases, blockchain systems, putting pressure on Canada’s farmers to collect and share all data related to their operations.

But industry leaders are cautioning that, as a market, Canada is falling behind on developing and adopting critical agtech.

Presentations and briefing notes from three Agri-Food Table meetings held between October 2017 and January 2018 highlight the federal government’s concern that Canada is lagging competitors in agricultural innovation, jeopardizing progress in the sector and in the food processing industry, the country’s largest manufacturing sector. The documents—obtained via access-to-information requests—note lack of skills training, data privacy concerns and poor broadband connectivity as key barriers to adoption.

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“Canada has generally not been a significant creator of new primary agriculture and food processing technologies,” documents read, adding that there’s potential for Canadian innovation in the space, and to adopt new technologies created elsewhere. “These technologies are key to Canada’s competitiveness, generating opportunities to help address some of the major challenges facing the sector.” The department of Agriculture and Agri-Food did not reply to The Logic’s request to comment further.

Talking Point

The “smart farm” is fast becoming the global norm, but limited skills training, concerns over data privacy and poor rural connectivity are jeopardizing progress in the sector, according to industry experts contracted by the federal government to study the issue.

The remarks come as no surprise to Dale Steele, a past farmer who now consults others in the U.S. and Canada on how to integrate digital agriculture technology—or “precision agriculture,” as it’s often called—into their farming operations to make them more efficient. His work involves coordinating what equipment to use and what data to collect to optimize planting, fertilization, irrigation and harvest. He also works with farmers on how to input their data in the cloud—something that is increasingly important amid a global push for better supply-chain transparency.

“A few years ago, Canada and the U.S. were at about the same stage on this,” says Steele, noting that Canada has yet to introduce agtech programs in colleges and universities, despite its growing importance in the field. “The U.S. is mobilizing that much quicker. It’s going to take a while for us to catch up,” he says. “How do you build a workforce if there’s no training yet?” Most agriculture programs in Canada do have agtech courses and faculty studying the space. However, none have degree programs dedicated to the topic, leaving a disconnect between agriculture, technology and innovation, says Steele.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada contracted Steele—who worked from 2011 to 2015 with Manitoba-based Farmer’s Edge, Canada’s preeminent precision agtech company—to study challenges around agtech in Western Canada. His findings, published in a March 2017 report, show that while the majority of famers use some form of precision agtech, like GPS and automatic steering for their equipment, rates of adoption drop as the technology becomes more complex. Meanwhile, just 13 per cent use Wi-Fi or cellular networks to transfer equipment data to the cloud, which means little value is extracted from the information they collect. Another 39 per cent of respondents weren’t comfortable sharing their data with anyone, and only 15 per cent said they were comfortable sharing it with the government.

“Even if the farmer doesn’t value his data, as soon as someone else wants it he becomes concerned,” says Steele. There’s a skepticism of ‘What are you going to do with my data and will it actually benefit me?’”

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To farmers, the benefit of digitization may simply be that it allows them to survive in the rapidly changing industry, says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. “There’s a pull effect on agriculture from the retail and distribution side,” Charlebois says in a phone interview from China, where he was delivering a keynote on using blockchain to improve food traceability. The global food supply chain is sprawling and complex, and retailers are keen to make it more transparent in light of recent food fraud scandals and contamination outbreaks. Blockchain technology allows everyone in the supply system to track problems back to the source, taking pressure off the seller, who typically bears the brunt of problems when they arise. “You can identify the scope of a recall within seconds with blockchain,” says Charlebois. “With conventional traceability systems, it often takes days, perhaps weeks.”   

Walmart and IBM have been working on improving food traceability by getting farmers, food processors and distributors onto the blockchain. Walmart, for instance, has mandated that anyone supplying the retailer with leafy greens must upload their data to the blockchain by September 2019. “Walmart’s approach is ‘If you want to do business with us, you have to comply,’” says Charlebois, who predicts all major retailers are heading in that direction.

Complying with the changing demands from the supply chain is a challenge for many Canadian farmers, however, in large part because of poor broadband connectivity in rural areas. A study of crop farmers in southwestern Ontario found that just 37 per cent had internet access—an essential service for uploading data to the cloud or blockchain; only seven per cent had access to fibre optic internet.

“The new generation of farm is a wired farm, and you need good, reliable broadband connectivity to make everything work,” says Allan Thompson, a longtime crop and dairy farmer, as well as the mayor of Caledon, Ont. “As mayor of a municipality where I’m probably 80 per cent rural, it’s tough for our agricultural industry.”

In 2015, Thompson joined Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT), a non-profit organization supported by 20 municipalities and 12 First Nations—plus school boards and hospitals—with the goal of filling gaps in the region’s broadband infrastructure. As a member municipality, Thompson raised a one per cent levy (since reduced to 0.6 per cent) on property taxes specifically to help improve broadband. The funds raised from the levy so far have gone toward studying gaps in broadband access and identifying existing fibre optic networks in Caledon that could be converted for high-speed internet purposes.

Thompson, who’s also a member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), says rural internet accessibility has been a topic of discussion at FCM conferences for at least the past decade, but says progress has been slow, largely due to poor support from the federal and provincial governments.

“I just don’t think they really understand that this is the new future and they better get engaged quickly or we’re going to fall behind.”

There are signs, however, that government and regulators are finally taking note.

In December 2016, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that high-speed internet is a basic service that all Canadians should have access to. The regulator plans to start rolling out a $750-million fund in 2019 to bolster internet access in remote and rural regions, and the federal Liberals have pledged another $500 million to the cause through the Connect to Innovate program.

The funds fall short of the estimated $7 billion it will take to connect rural and remote Canada, and one initiative tied to the Connect to Innovate program in Manitoba has already had rocky start\. Still, those in the agriculture sector say it’s a start—and the bare minimum for meeting the government’s ambitious goals for the sector. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) has set targets of $140 billion in domestic agri-food sales by 2025, up from $110 billion in 2017, and $85 billion in exports by 2025, an increase from $64.6 billion in 2017. The goal will require revamping the regulatory system for supply-chain management, an ISED report notes, which could include blockchain pilot programs.

The agri-food industry represented 6.7 per cent of Canada’s GDP in 2016, fueling the food processing industry, the biggest contributor to the country’s manufacturing . Ensuring rural Canada has the necessary infrastructure and skills for agtech will not just be a boon to the economy, it will open up opportunities for tech talent. “We’ll see more high-tech jobs coming to rural parts of Canada,” said Scott Shearer, at a recent agtech conference in Grey County, Ont. Shearer, who is chair of the food, agriculture and biological engineering department at Ohio State University, has seen that happen in Ohio, where agriculture has catalyzed a tech awakening in the region.

He notes that as we build out rural broadband, fill skills gaps and overcome data concerns, “it’s really going to facilitate the connection of agriculture and spawn a whole lot of new businesses.” And soon, he adds, the sector’s prosperity will hinge on ensuring that happens. “You get to a point where, if you’re not using the technology, you’re probably not profitable—you have to use it to remain competitive in the marketplace,” says Shearer. “So the real question becomes: when does a farmer adopt the appropriate technology?”