Politics

To take advantage of coming agriculture 'revolution' Canada needs investment, says expert

A Canadian agri-food expert says Canada has an opportunity to be a key player in the coming agriculture industrial-revolution — but the sector needs investment to take advantage.

'This is Canada's moment to take advantage of a huge opportunity,' says leading Canadian food expert

A tractor sits in a field during harvest in Saskatchewan. The growing technology in new tractor models could revolutionize the way Canada farms. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

A leading Canadian agri-food expert says Canada has an opportunity to significantly boost its gross domestic product and be a key player in the coming agriculture-industrial revolution. But the sector needs investment from the federal government to take advantage of the opportunity.

"Agriculture really is at the cusp of a new industrial revolution...This is Canada's moment to take advantage of a huge opportunity," Evan Fraser, the head of the University of Guelph's Food Institute, told CBC's The House host Chris Hall.

"The population is growing and with climate change food is expected to be harder to produce. So against that big context, there is a strong likelihood agriculture will rise in importance in terms of global economic trade and Canada is poised to play an increasingly important role."

In its recent report, the Liberal government's Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which advises the government on long-term economic strategy, took a similar line.

The report said increasing both agriculture and agri-food exports "would imply an additional US $30 billion in exports in today's distribution of global export shares, equivalent to nearly two percent of current GDP. "

Fraser, who contributed policy ideas to Dominic Barton's team ahead of their second report, said with its abundance of land and freshwater, Canada could become a global leader in the agri-food industry. But it needs investments from the upcoming federal budget in order to do so, he said.

Evan Fraser, head of the University of Guelph's Food Institute, tells CBC The House host Chris Hall, right, that Canada is poised to become a leader in the agri-food sector. (CBC)

Fraser says the same technology that's propelled growth in other industries, such as robotics and data analytics, hold the promise of producing more food on less land. 

"We have to imagine a tractor driving through a field and the tractor itself senses where it is on the field and plants the right seed at the right time and gives it the right amount of fertilizer. Or a robotic dairy barn that tracks the life and wellbeing and welfare of the cow in real time and tailors the inputs that cow receives, the diet that cow receives," explained Fraser.

"We can create a Silicon Valley type vibe for food in our country where we can hopefully benefit in terms of innovation, jobs and hopefully sustainability," he said.

Internet a priority

When Finance Minister Bill Morneau stands up in the House of Commons and announces the budget, Fraser will be looking for money in technology, but also investments for farming data.

"We need to make sure the rural broadband agenda is on because if the tractor, the farmer, can't get the data off the farm then it's of no use," he said.

"We're also going to need investments in data analytics and data processing infrastructure."

Like many industries revolutionized by technology, one of the underlining fears of shoring up the agri-food industry is losing traditional jobs.

"No technology is a panacea and these technologies are no exception," Fraser said.

On a special edition of The House, Chris Hall travels through south western Ontario to find out what Canadians want to see in the upcoming federal budget. 49:59