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Alberta agriculture: Positioning to be a leader in food security

Alberta’s agriculture industry has an opportunity to become a major player by addressing food security, utilizing technology and supporting sustainability.

By John Cassidy, Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, Mark Thompson & Kassandra Quayle presented at the 2022 ATB Business Summit 18 July 2022 5 min read

Alberta’s agriculture sector has shown amazing resiliency over the past decade, weathering everything from border closures, floods, drought, and changing consumer preferences, to a global pandemic. The impact of the invasion of Ukraine and resulting disruption of food and fuel supply highlighted a need to refocus on full-cycle agriculture in Canada, from field to table.

Video: Watch the Agriculture panel at the 2022 ATB Business Summit.

Sustainable Agriculture

To be sustainable, the industry needs to increase collaboration between sectors, harnessing technology and capital to build processing capacity in the province and Canada, and connect more with consumers at all levels, say insiders.

“In the past, the focus was on scaling and improving the existing model, getting better at crop production and exporting more, creating more yield,” said Kassandra Quayle, chief financial officer with Protein Industries Canada. “What we’ve been trying to do - and one of the challenges is - to raise the awareness of opportunities, to move from a commodities export focus to really looking at a value chain approach and value creation.”

Local processing facilities for agricultural products will help drive down prices, reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, and increase food security, Quayle said, as part of a panel on agriculture during the recent ATB Business Summit in Edmonton.

In a world where agricultural and food technologies are evolving, consumers’ buying habits are changing, and geopolitics influence markets, panel moderator ATB Vice-President of Agriculture Jon Neuten asked “How can Alberta position its agriculture and agri-food sectors to be successful?”

An era of change

Collaboration and technology were two major themes among panel participants, which included Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO, CL Ranches, and founding chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. The Canadian beef industry has undergone substantial changes in the past 15 years, she noted, from the impact of bovine encephalitis to changing consumer views of the sector.

“Today our number one issue has become food security,” Copithorne-Barnes told the audience. “Consumers want to have confidence they’re doing the right thing because that’s the best way to influence climate change ⁠—through their consumer dollars. So, we are making sure (beef) is not taken off their plate.”

The industry’s journey to sustainability included collaboration to gather data showing the actual impact the beef industry has on global greenhouse gas emissions, she noted. For fiercely independent ranchers, learning the importance of reinforcing your team and having the right people at the table has been part of the learning curve.

“We as farmers and ranchers have been part of this land for many generations. And we assumed that we have always been doing the right thing,” Copithorne-Barnes said. “But we have learned our story isn’t being told in a way that really translates to consumers and to the public, and that’s been part of the journey and what we’ve been discovering in the past 10 years.”

Technology and innovation

“Innovation in the agricultural space has exploded in the last decade, and particularly since the pandemic,” said John Cassidy, Managing Director Canada, SVG Ventures | THRIVE , a venture capital and innovation platform for agriculture and agri-food industries. Focused on ‘seed to series A’ companies, SVG Ventures | THRIVE set up a Canadian subsidiary two years ago to help these companies achieve success with accelerator and corporate innovation partnership programs.

“The forces pushing innovations in agribusiness are based on one simple fact – food and nutrition are necessary for life. Therefore, it’s in the interest of our existence to improve the availability, cost and nutritional value of food. Increasing investment in innovative companies tackling this, should be the priority,” said Cassidy.

Investment dollars should go towards new ways of growing things, such as vertical farming in urban centres supplying local grocery stores. But new technologies are costly, and policies have to be put in place, at provincial and federal levels, to reduce that barrier.

“The innovation needed in this sector is gigantic, which places enormous pressure to innovate. In order for agribusiness to meet the goals of improved accessibility, lower costs and better nutrition, it will have to adapt, innovate, and – in some cases – completely re-make itself,” Cassidy said. “Although this may sound daunting, it can also be exciting.

Rather than a stale industry that continues to do what it’s always done, agribusiness will be dynamic, cutting-edge and attractive to new ideas and workers seeking exciting opportunities.”

The pandemic shined a spotlight on the drawbacks of globalization as supply chain disruptions led to shortages of materials and products. The invasion of Ukraine – a major producer of wheat and oil seed - has further disrupted agricultural and industrial markets.

“There has never been a more important time in modern history for the agriculture industry in Alberta, in Canada – and the world,” noted Mark Thompson, Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer, Nutrien.

Food security 

“While the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is obviously devastating, we are all beginning to realize that the implications on food security are potentially more devastating beyond their borders, and multiples bigger, in terms of the potential impact,” said Thompson.

Nutrien, the world's largest provider of crop inputs and services, expects the situation will remain volatile, pressuring nations to reduce agricultural exports – like India is already – to address food security, and change how they address growth in the sector.

“The importance of Canada's opportunity to be a stable jurisdiction during geopolitical upheaval can't be understated. We can be a breadbasket for the world," he said. "Looking at opportunities for western Canadian growers, we expect to see Canada play a heightened role in global trade flow - most significantly in the fertilizer and crop production sectors.” 

The world has changed, with an increased focus on resilience, sustainability, and self-sufficiency. With the agriculture sector working closely with scientists and technology companies, the future grows brighter for Alberta. “There is a real, significant benefit to that ability to collaborate and work across the value chain. And I think some of the most innovative projects that we’ve seen have been that opportunity to collaborate across the sector, within a producer, a processor and an end food product,” said Quayle.


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