A fourth agricultural revolution is underway, and this one isn't powered by seeds or diesel. It's all about data.
As Canadian farmers leave traditional tasks to smart machines, and focus on strategy and systems, they’ll be better positioned than ever to feed a fast-growing global population. But to do that, they’ll need a wide range of new skills, as well as enhanced old skills, that Canada isn’t developing anywhere near fast enough.
According to Farmer 4.0, a new RBC report, the country could be short critical skills – data analysis, robotics and global sales, among them – that will be needed to transform the sector across a projected shortage of 123,000 agricultural workers by 2030. However, with the correct skills mix, agriculture could add another $11 billion to Canada’s GDP and make the sector more productive than auto manufacturing and aerospace combined.
Farmer 4.0 is the result of a four-month study by researchers and economists on the changing skills demands in agriculture, which combines data analysis with interviews with people on the front lines of the farming revolution.
The report found that Canadian farmers are at the intersection of a demographic and technological revolution. By 2025, one in four farmers will be 65 or older, with 110,000 expected to retire in the coming decade. Meanwhile, fewer young people than ever are entering agriculture.
Farmer 4.0 also analyzed the emergence of advanced technologies across a range of agricultural sub-sectors, and found they will not reduce employment in the near term but will change the skills needed over the decade by farms, aquaculture, vineyards and greenhouses.
The report found 14% of producers automated tasks last year, and the sector spent four times as much per worker on machinery as the overall economy did. But even though 95% of large producers reported using advanced technologies, Canada’s share of agtech investment was just 3.4% in 2018.
Using a model of skills clusters developed in Humans Wanted, a 2018 report from RBC, Farmer 4.0 presents five categories of agriculture workers that will be affected in very different ways by technology:
- The most critical group, farm owners and operators that we’ve described as “deciders,” will need the digital expertise, leadership abilities and critical thinking skills to manage ever-larger and more complex operations.
- A second group of skilled workers who service farm equipment will need to focus on increasingly smart machines, meaning they’ll have to develop the technological skills to tool robots and write code. The report estimates Canada will need another 25,000 such people, known as “enablers,” with software knowledge, business acumen and communications skills.
- A third group known as “specialists,” with a particular knowledge of scientific fields such as genetics, blockchain and artificial intelligence, will create 18,000 more jobs.
One of the biggest challenges for policymakers will be among low-skilled labour roles, which are projected to account for 85,000 of the total shortages by 2030. The demand for such positions, which include fruit picking and planting, will become more acute in the short term – and more automatable in the long term. The transition will require a new approach to immigration and reskilling, among other policies.
Farmer 4.0 highlights innovations in countries such as the Netherlands, Australia and Israel, where agriculture education is at the cutting edge of those countries’ innovation agendas, and calls on Canada to adopt a new mix of farm skills that is more data-focused, innovation-minded and diverse. Among the recommendations in the report is a national skills strategy, including a push for more young people to enter the sector.
Agriculture will be central to Canada’s future health and prosperity. With the right mix of skills and technologies, Canadian farmers can help feed the world and grow Canada’s economy.
John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.
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