Extreme weather and geopolitical turmoil have placed the world’s food systems under tremendous stress.
At the same time, climate change is slowing agricultural productivity among major producing nations, there’s a growing need for more food: globally, over 800 million people are food insecure — meaning that they don’t have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their daily needs. In Canada, one-in-six people are food insecure. As a top agricultural exporter, Canada has both a responsibility and an opportunity to help. But agriculture is also one of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint: by one estimate, 10% of Canada’s emissions are from crop and livestock production.
How can Canada feed a growing population while simultaneously slashing emissions? That’s the problem we’ll tackle in a special three-part series on Disruptors, an RBC podcast, called, “The Growing Challenge”. In it, co-hosts John Stackhouse and Trinh Theresa Do speak with some of the top innovators and big-picture thinkers who are helping Canadian agriculture meet this grand challenge.
In our first episode, John and Theresa speak with Sonya Hoo, a managing partner at BCG who studies the Canadian food and agricultural sector, Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph and author of the new book, “Dinner on Mars: The Technologies That Will Feed the Red Planet and Transform Agriculture on Earth”, Kristjan Hebert, managing partner of Hebert Grain Ventures (HGV), a large grain and oilseed operation in southeast Saskatchewan, and Murad Al-Katib, president and CEO of AGT Food and Ingredients, a global value-added pulses, staple foods and ingredient company.
By one account, humanity must produce more food over the next four decades than we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined. Can we make it happen — while simultaneously lowering our greenhouse gas emissions? Tune in over the next few weeks to find out!
To learn more about BCG’s work on food systems and food security — follow this link, and to learn more about their Centre for Canada’s Future, click here.
The Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph has a mission to “bring people together to conduct research, train the next generation of food leaders and shape social, industrial and governmental decisions”; to read some of their work, click here. And to check out director Evan Fraser’s new book—which he co-wrote with author Lenore Newman—follow this link.
Farmer Kristjan Hebert has his own website, if you’d like to find out the latest on what he’s up to. Kristjan also appeared recently on The Farm CPA Podcast; you can listen to his interview here.
To learn more about Murad Al-Katib’s business, AGT Food and Ingredients, follow this link. Murad is also chair of the federal government’s Economic Strategy Table for agri-food. To read more about their work, click here
Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hi. It’s John here.
Speaker 2 [00:00:03] And it’s Theresa.
Speaker 1 [00:00:04] Theresa? If I were to ask you to name one of the top challenges facing the world today, one of them would have to be climate change, right?
Speaker 2 [00:00:11] Oh, without a doubt. Mother Nature is sending us some serious warning signs, John.
Speaker 1 [00:00:17] Pretty hard to ignore wherever you are on the planet. But how often do you sit down to dinner and consider the climate impact of the actual food on your plate?
Speaker 2 [00:00:27] Yeah, that’s a good point. Probably not often enough. I think sometimes it’s hard to remember what’s good or not good for the environment amidst the day to day stresses of life. But I know that beef is by far the most carbon intensive food to produce, followed by seafood, pork, chicken. And I also know that plant based foods are the least carbon intensive things like tofu, beans and nuts.
Speaker 1 [00:00:50] And let’s not forget that a lot of the stuff we grow or produce doesn’t even make it to our stomachs. It expires or goes bad or gets left on the table and thrown out. Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:01:00] I really hate food. Waste the silent shame of our kitchens. The fact is that the food we produce and the food we consume comprises 10% of our country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. And to reach our larger carbon reduction goals, we’re up against a ticking clock.
Speaker 1 [00:01:16] The other consideration, Theresa, is that we’re going to need to produce a lot more food in the coming years. Just think about the conflict in Ukraine. It’s laid bare, how fragile the world’s food systems can be. Or remember back to the depths of COVID and lockdowns how precarious food supplies became. That will be a growing challenge, as we say in the title of this podcast series. As the global population grows and that means more mouths to feed, which comes with added costs, both financial and environmental.
Speaker 2 [00:01:45] Yeah, and it’s a huge challenge, John, one that we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lately here at RBC.
Speaker 1 [00:01:51] At this moment, Canada has a unique opportunity. We have a huge supply of arable land and water. Our farmers already produce $75 billion worth of food each year. We’re top exporters of wheat, canola and beef. And we’re also a land overflowing with innovation.
Speaker 2 [00:02:09] RBC Economics predicts that Canada will need to spend about $2 trillion in the next three decades to transition to a net zero economy. So, yes, on the one hand, we need to feed more people almost 10 billion by 2050. But at the same time, we have to reduce our current emissions levels while also producing more food in order to meet our net zero goals for the sector. So how do we do it?
Speaker 1 [00:02:33] That’s the $10 billion question. Or maybe you’d like to call it the 10 billion person question that we’re going to try to tackle in the coming weeks. This is Disruptors and our VC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse.
Speaker 2 [00:02:51] And I’m Trinh Theresa Do. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the first in a special series we’re calling “The Growing Challenge”. Over the next three episodes, we’re going to explore how Canada can lead the world in clean, green agriculture using cutting edge technology, data systems and smart thinking to increase yields while reducing the environmental impact. In other words, more food with fewer emissions in line with our nation’s net zero goals.
Speaker 1 [00:03:23] Here at RBC, we’ve embarked on a signature research project in partnership with Barclays Center for Canada’s Future and the Aral Food Institute at the University of Guelph. Sonja, who is a managing director and partner in BCG, is Washington, D.C. office and a global expert on agriculture. She says the magnitude of the challenge cannot be understated.
Speaker 2 [00:03:46] Agriculture accounts for over 10% of emissions in Canada, and at the same time we expect global demand for food to increase by 26% by 2050. And to be honest, Canada is in a great position to address that demand. But at the same time, it needs to do so in a way that isn’t going to also increase the emissions, given the challenge that we have in the world.
Speaker 1 [00:04:14] We’ll hear more from Sonja a bit later in the series. Canadians right across the country have an opportunity to be leaders in food innovation and help people working up and down the supply chain improve their efficiency. To do that, we need to attract a new generation of farmers, innovators and scientists to the field or fields. And one of the people leading the charge, Ogwell, is this man.
Speaker 3 [00:04:37] My name’s Evan Fraser. I’m director of Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
Speaker 1 [00:04:42] Evan is one of Canada’s top social scientists working on food and sustainability. I started out by asking him our central question How can Canada help feed the world sustainably?
Speaker 3 [00:04:52] I think the answer to that question is good policy and technological innovation, and I think those two things are the reasons that I remain optimistic. So we know we have to increase production. Some people think we need to increase production by 70% by 2050. And The Economist ran an article a few years ago on this topic, and the stand out pull quote from that article was that the farmers of this planet need to produce more food over the next generation than all farmers have ever in the last 10,000 years cumulatively. The scale of the production challenge is huge, and at the same time we have to not only take greenhouse gas emissions out of agriculture, we actually have to turn the arrow around and make agriculture absorb greenhouse gases. So we’re not trying to reduce emissions in agriculture. We’re trying to make agriculture a net sink for greenhouse gases. Those are formidable challenges. At the same time, of course, water is scarce in many parts of the world and likely to become scarcer. At the same time, weather patterns are less stable and less predictable, and at the same time, soil erosion is real and major parts of the world are experiencing a degradation.
Speaker 1 [00:05:53] So against that backdrop, I asked Evan where the opportunities for improvement lie.
Speaker 3 [00:05:58] First of all, we have a leaky food system. We produce enough calories right now for everybody to eat. If you use the United statistics and you take all the world’s food and you divide it by all the world’s people, there’s about 2700 calories produced per person per day, which is actually more than enough. Second, we waste a lot of food. About a third of the world’s food is wasted. So we’ve got gargantuan rooms for efficiency gains in the current system.
Speaker 2 [00:06:20] By the way, we’re going to talk a lot about food waste in the third episode of the series. But like Evan, we’re also focused on the technological solutions.
Speaker 3 [00:06:28] We have only just started to apply digital technologies to agriculture. So the same tech that produced the Internet, the same tech that transforms medicine in the last ten years, the same technologies that that allowed us to go from no idea about coronavirus to four or five or six vaccines in 18 months. Those same technologies are only now being applied to food production, distribution, food processing. And so not only do we have a system that’s actually quite leaky or inefficient to begin with in terms of waste and surplus calories and things like that. We’ve also got an area where we haven’t done a lot of technological innovation. Much of the world’s farming community still uses sometimes 19th century and certainly 20th century technologies, let alone 21st century technologies. So I think there’s some very, very big vistas of productivity to be gained by artificial intelligence and satellites and genomics. And we can get into very specific, granular examples of cool technologies. But I think overall, agriculture is ripe for a wave of innovation to come crashing down on it. Waves of innovation can be highly disruptive, and they can dislocate rural communities and they can disenfranchize people so that they’re not all good. But I think the potential to boost production while shrinking environmental impact with technology is very real.
Speaker 1 [00:07:48] Evan has spent a ton of time thinking about out there tech solutions to the world’s food problems. In fact, he just co-wrote a book called Dinner on Mars The Technologies That Will Feed the Red Planet and Transform Agriculture on Earth. He thinks growing food on Mars is a good thought experiment for us here on Earth.
Speaker 2 [00:08:06] And it makes sense, right? Because resources are scarce on Mars, which means you have to make the most of what you have. In other words, you have to perfects the idea of a circular economy where waste from one section feeds into another. What he’s basically saying, I think, is that we could actually survive on Mars, at least when it comes to growing food.
Speaker 1 [00:08:25] But I pressed him to explain how this Martian thought experiment could be applied here on Earth. I wanted to know how close we are really to replicating a system like this.
Speaker 3 [00:08:34] We don’t have all the technologies, but let’s just take something like cellular agriculture, the ability to produce livestock proteins from laboratory settings. We’re close. We’re really close on a number of key areas. I think properly designed. A lot of those bioreactors that produce those, those livestock proteins, ultimately they’ll be fed on wasted organics. So you think of all the spent grains from a brewery, for instance? Well, those should go into bioreactors to produce higher value proteins. Or you take the Canadian prairies and we start thinking about Canada’s role in this fractured global food system. The Canadian prairies are unbelievably efficient at producing peas and plant based proteins. But once you take that pea and you fractionated out the water and the. Starches and the proteins, and you used the proteins as a food substance. You’ve got a lot of starches. Well, those starches could go into a fermentation bioreactor, reproduce other kinds of protein. And so I think starting with the idea of the circular economies of Mars and moving forward, we actually start imagining a vision for our country’s agri food future and our position on the global stage.
Speaker 2 [00:09:39] Of course, a lot of farmers are already laser focused on building the tools we need to eat far more sustainably today, right here on planet Earth, and we’ll need their expertize. We know that Canada will need to grow more food without adding substantially more farmland. If we want to reach net zero. For many farmers, faced with expensive real estate, labor shortages and other existential challenges. Doing more with less is not a recent imperative. For some, it’s actually the animating focus that’s driven their farms for generations.
Speaker 4 [00:10:15] I am a Kristjan Hebert. I farm at Moose in Saskatchewan, right in the southeast corner of the province. Most of it’s kind of the halfway point between Brandon, Manitoba and Regina, Saskatchewan. It’s only about 30 miles past the Manitoba border, and agriculture is really large in this area. So we spent about 3500 people, but within a 80 kilometer radius, two trains with about 70,000.
Speaker 1 [00:10:37] Kristjan, you’ve got a really big farm. Can you describe it for us?
Speaker 4 [00:10:41] We currently operate around 30,000 acres and obviously for for listeners that don’t know and acres about eight feet wide and a mile long. So a few football fields in our terms and we grow wheat, barley, canola peas, oats and sometimes some hybrid. RYAN As far as a few people may know, we do a fair bit with data and technology, and that really helps drive our farm operation.
Speaker 2 [00:11:03] 30,000 acres. It’s a lot of work to keep a farm like that going.
Speaker 1 [00:11:06] Kristjan is a third generation farmer working the same soil where his grandfather put down stakes in the early 1960s. But the challenges he faces are new acute labor shortages and difficulty attracting specialized talent to small town Canada because new farming techniques require different kinds of skills.
Speaker 2 [00:11:25] Meanwhile, there’s also growing volatility in interest rates and foreign exchange rates and rising prices for a variety of inputs and equipment. And of course, farms like Christians across western Canada have faced more and more extreme weather in recent years. Droughts, floods and more droughts.
Speaker 1 [00:11:43] Exactly. So given all this, I asked him what role sustainability played in his farm operations. As you’ll hear, it’s pretty integral.
Speaker 4 [00:11:51] I’ve got a picture that hangs on my wall that says our you know, our legacy statement is is our sustainability statement. And that’s that the financial statements, the land, the community and the industry should be handed, you know, generation to generation in a better state. But all four of those need to improve each generation, not just one, when it comes to the land. I mean, it’s everything to us. It’s our asset. It’s like somebody’s home. You don’t let your home deteriorate generation to generation. It’s one thing that helps build family wealth, and that’s really our land. But not only is it like our home, it’s our engine. It generates everything on the farm. So, I mean, in today’s world, if you were to come to our farm, I could show you we’re taking soil tests every four acres on our farm. And I like to compare that to no different than a human taking a blood test to see what they need from their doctor to be healthy.
Speaker 2 [00:12:35] I love that analogy of a soil test being like a blood test, a health check for the land, for sure.
Speaker 1 [00:12:41] Everything, everything starts with the soil. But according to Kristjan, the key is to pay attention to what the soil is telling you. That’s your biggest data source. You need to learn from it.
Speaker 4 [00:12:52] So we take soil tests to see exactly what nutrition our crops are going to require that year to hit the yield targets to allow us to produce the grain we need to feed the world so that we add the nutrition we need, which is in today’s world is called fertilizer. Fertilizer is really just food or calories that goes into a human body. A crop is no different. We give it food and nutrition to allow it to reach its full potential by the end of the growing year, which is only 100 or 120 days. Next step is we use a lot of data to determine which weeds, etc. and pasture in the crop and we remove them with our herbicide in order to to allow it to be healthy. And then lastly, we get to harvest and we collect all the data too on our yield data. We take all of this that we’ve collected all year, our soil test data, the nutrition we put down in the harvest data to create next year’s map to do a better job again.
Speaker 1 [00:13:41] Christian said that the ability to collect data from farms has really improved in the last decade or so. Before that, he says, farmers had to rely more on gut feel and hunches for how to get better.
Speaker 4 [00:13:52] And farmers did. An amazing job of that was with things like Zero Tail, etc. But as data is able to be collected, we can make a lot more changes in season and annually than we could in the past. And of course, the land is something I’m going to take care of. And my kids could come up to the Harvest crew right now and grab a handful of any grain I grow and throw it directly in their mouth and eat it and it would be safe and nutritious and I’d be happy with that.
Speaker 2 [00:14:15] He mentioned zero till there, John. Basically a way of farming that causes less soil erosion.
Speaker 1 [00:14:21] Right. And we’re going to explain more on that in a minute.
Speaker 2 [00:14:24] What jumps out to me is how much passion he puts into what he grows and the precision with which he does it.
Speaker 1 [00:14:29] Absolutely. And that reliance on data is core to how Kristjan Hebert and Hebert Green Ventures has achieved more sustainable results. But sustainability, as he explained to us, is nothing new to the family business. They’ve been on that path for decades, practicing no till farming and using technology such as air seeders which allow crops to be seeded and fertilized without disturbing the soil.
Speaker 4 [00:14:53] Zero tilled came in because of erosion, working the fields in dry land. Farming was really tough on the fields you literally deteriorated your land. So we’ve been doing Zero Tillage since, I think it was the early nineties. The dad bought the first drill. I mean, I’d have been ten years old at the time, so we’ve done zero till forever. But then you look at little pieces like sectional control. We run 80 foot air sinas and he. Section shuts off as it starts to overlap. Where ten, 20 years ago it didn’t. You’d overlap half that air seeder on the way down. Whether you’re going around a slower a curve or turning around, it used to be 13% of your field would be overlapped. Now it’s down close to 1%. You know, 99% of our field gets exactly what it should for nutrition. So that was a huge move forward. I look at nitrogen inhibitors. I mean, that was just once again, we did testing to find out if any of our nitrogen was gassing off. And at times we did find there was conditions that allowed it. So we started using nitrogen inhibitors a number of years ago, but for two reasons. One, it’s better for the climate. The other thing is I don’t want my fertilizer to gas off my crop needs that like that. That’s supper for my crop. So if I only seed my crop two meals a day, it’s not going to be as healthy as if it gets three. So, I mean, the goals of the crop and of the climate are actually extremely intertwined and, and on the same page. And those things both hit my financial statements. And then I think lastly, we just use the ability to collect data alive and all the equipment. And, you know, I got weather stations with four foot soil probes that are reporting to my phone every 15 minutes now of how the water is moving through the soil. All the roots are moving through the soil, kind of what the yield algorithm is off of that and then correlating all the stations together, just the speed of which we can collect data and use AI to start to learn more and more than we currently know. I think the changes you’re going to see in the next decade will make what happened in the last decade small.
Speaker 2 [00:16:39] So, John, it seems like anyone who’s lived and farmed on the prairies over the past decade or two has likely already seen some pretty profound changes in terms of emissions and technology with more to come.
Speaker 1 [00:16:53] And if there’s one thing I learned from talking with Christian, it’s the farmers like him have been innovating for decades and will continue to innovate.
Speaker 2 [00:17:04] John, I want to introduce another person now, someone else who’s had a front row seat to all this change. Meet Murad Al-Katib.
Speaker 5 [00:17:12] We were community leaders. That’s how we grew up and agriculture in our community. I grew up in a time where the country elevators were closing and it was the race for the concrete elevators, you know, the terminals that would be built and those communities that secured those would survive their schools, their hospitals, you know, the communities on Main Street with Thrive, those that didn’t may not survive.
Speaker 2 [00:17:33] Murad’s family moved from Turkey to rural Saskatchewan in the 1960s, ultimately settling in DAVIDSON In 1975, his father was a family doctor and his mother served as councilor for the regional municipality of Willmar.
Speaker 5 [00:17:46] I had to go to my father and tell him that after five generations of doctors, I would disappoint him and go to business school. And I remember him saying, you know, son, is that an honorable profession, you know, going into business? And, you know, again, he supported my development. And, you know, 21 years ago, I founded the company. And it’s been a crazy ride to a couple of billion dollars in revenue and building something that I think has made a bit of a difference in western Canada.
Speaker 2 [00:18:12] So Murad is the founder and CEO of AGT Food and Ingredients. Based in Regina, they’ve got over 2000 full time employees, so it’s one of the largest suppliers of value add pulses, staple foods and food ingredients in the world mirrored by his lentils, peas, beans and chickpeas from farmers in Canada, the U.S., Turkey and beyond processes them and then shipped the final products to customers in more than 120 countries around the globe. I asked him to talk about what motivated him to enter this famously volatile industry and how he thinks Canada can rise to the challenge of growing and exporting more food, more value added food while still cutting emissions.
Speaker 5 [00:18:53] I think it’s all about technology and innovation. I mean, try, you know, implementing digital agriculture on one acre farms in India. We have farm families now with, you know, corporate entities, just farm families themselves that are producing 2 to 300000 acres of production sensors and data collection are going to allow us to do a lot more with a lot less. And I’ll give you a great example. The drought of 2021 was a historically bad drought in western Canada as a result of that drought. You know, nitrogen fertilizer wasn’t utilized like the nitrogen in the soil wasn’t taken by the crops because of the drought. In 2022, we had regions of Saskatchewan where there were enough nitrogen stores in the soil to grow a complete crop without the application of nitrogen fertilizer. In my days growing up in Davidson, we didn’t know that, right? People were farming by gut. Today we’re farming with data. Data is going to be the key to emission reduction. We’re going to have yield gains. We’re going to be using the same amount of nitrogen or last nitrogen, and we’re going to be growing more yield.
Speaker 1 [00:19:58] Interesting to hear him echo Kristjan there on the importance of data.
Speaker 2 [00:20:02] Yeah, he’s super happy. We’re now able to use data to monitor things like the nitrogen levels in the soil. He’s also excited about advances in irrigation technology.
Speaker 5 [00:20:11] The Lake Diefenbaker Irrigation Project in Saskatchewan, which is again, another generational project that we’re going to see freshwater resources brought into irrigation, you know, development that could be 5 million acres of irrigation that doesn’t exist today. The government’s talking about emission reduction, GHG footprint, water use, efficiency. All these things are achievable with technology and innovation and our farmers have the ability to do that. That’s how I think Canada is going to be one that will step outside the crowd and be very relevant to the new consumer that’s going to demand this profile from the food industry.
Speaker 2 [00:20:51] Coming up, we’ll hear more from Iraq on how Canada can lead the world in building a sustainable agricultural advantage. So stay right there. You’re listening to Disruptors and RBC podcast. I’m Theresa Do. I’d like to share a bit about our latest report from RBC Economics and Thought Leadership. It’s called The Price of Power. And in it, we outline the scale of the challenge facing our policymakers over the next three decades to reach a net zero electricity grid by 2035. Is Canada ready to meet a 50% surge in electricity consumption over the next decade? It’s a tall order, even unlikely at our current pace of decision making. If we get it wrong, Canada could suffer Europe’s fate of a hobbled, energy insecure grid that leaves consumers with soaring bills. To learn more, visit our BBC.com thought leadership. Welcome back. Today, we’re talking about how Canada’s farmers and agricultural innovators can lead and feed the world in an age of climate disruption. We just heard from Murad Al-Katib, the CEO of AGT Foods, a leading exporter of Canadian agricultural goods. Canadian farmers already punch above their weight as exporters. We’re a global leader in the production of wheat, barley and canola. A Canadian invention, by the way. But Murad thinks that looking forward, Canada still has so much more potential.
Speaker 5 [00:22:24] You know, I see when a baby is hungry, they cry. And when a 19 year old man is hungry and unemployed, they protest. And what we’re going to see in the world is, I think over the next decade, a resurgence of Canadian geopolitical importance. We’re going to see Canada as a big part of the solution in a Russia, Ukraine, you know, post-conflict, we hope a post-conflict soon. But, you know, Canada is going to be an important part of filling that gap, you know, as infrastructures are rebuilt and food systems in those regions start to recover. So, you know, I’ve kind of seen that, you know, a renaissance of food.
Speaker 1 [00:22:57] A renaissance of food. Sounds promising.
Speaker 2 [00:23:00] Agreed. And I wanted to know more about that. What does that Renaissance look like? Exactly.
Speaker 5 [00:23:05] Governments are again thinking of buffer stocks. They’re thinking of food policy again. That’s important to recognize that we have in Canada the two scarcest resources in the world, land and water. And then I want to probably throw in that early adopters of technology, the farmers. You know, that is, for us, a recipe for success if we get it right in terms of the governmental policy and, you know, the the trends we’re seeing in plant based protein, renewable fuels, I see today the canola transformation that we saw was let’s grow canola and make oil. And canola oil will become one of the most important oils in North America and in the world. Well, now, you know, the renewable fuel side is going to take the canola fields of western Canada and make them synonymous with the Saudi Arabian oil fields. But they just renew annually. Every time we harvest the new crop, pulses are going to go through a similar renaissance where, you know, milling of pulses into protein starch, fiber fractions and flour are going to provide very nutritious protein ingredients to a growing population in the world that’s demanding clean, sustainable ingredients for the development of the food sector.
Speaker 1 [00:24:20] Clean, sustainable ingredients to feed the world. I love that vision. But to achieve that field of dreams, Canada needs to put some serious thought into how we will get agricultural products to markets efficiently.
Speaker 2 [00:24:32] Right. And so Murad says that means a serious rethink of our transportation infrastructure.
Speaker 5 [00:24:39] Our railways need to be relocated from the centers of cities around this country to allow us to reserve the lands to develop the trade infrastructure required for ten, 20, 30 and 40 years from now. We are a trading nation that is blessed with a productive capacity that’s only going to increase our average crop size was, you know, call it 55 million. You know, I think that 70 to 75 million tonnes is going to be more the norm in the future. And that’s again because of the use of technology and agronomy, new varieties, better farm management practices and data. So, you know, we’ve got to get serious about recognizing that potash demand is going to continue to rise. The demand for forestry products is rising. Agricultural production is going through the roof. And we have two national railways that have to share certain infrastructure through mountains and other areas. We’ve got to get serious about developing it, and we’ve got to get serious about a multi-modal strategy in this country. It can’t just be the Port of Vancouver all in the same period. We got to use the Great Lakes better. We’ve got to use Prince Rupert better. We’ve got to use containers as a surge capacity to get our products to market. And as we start out valuing, it’s not all going to be bulk vessels and bulk railcars anymore. We’re going to need intermodal and containers to get food products and ingredients to the world. We have one advantage a neighbor to the south called the United States, which is providing us with containers that come in full of consumer goods for them, which gives Canada an opportunity to fill them up and send them back to Asia to meet the growing middle class spending demand. So these are part of the infrastructure challenges that have to be solved.
Speaker 1 [00:26:19] And from what we’ve heard today, Theresa, it’s about transportation, it’s about data. It’s about sustainable practices with the soil and water. It’s about technology and learning lessons from Mars. A common refrain from farmers we talk to is that there’s no one size fits all strategy to boost productivity, while cutting emissions will require a tailored approach, one that fits both the individual farm and its location. Here’s Kristjan Hebert again.
Speaker 4 [00:26:45] The biggest thing I’ve learned is that we need to have a global theory and regional strategies. And what I mean by that is the global theory can absolutely be GHG emissions reduction. But what regional theories and global theories one would be, we probably need to stand up to some countries around the world that are willing to do anything about it before we focus on completely changing our 1%. You know, Russia and China might be two. That government should make sure everybody’s on board.
Speaker 2 [00:27:12] Christian is driving at the fact that Russia and China have been slow to adopt globally accepted climate treaties, and he feels they should be held more accountable. But he also knows there’s a lot more work to be done here. At home to make farming more sustainable. And the nature of that work is going to vary depending on where you’re standing.
Speaker 4 [00:27:30] A few years to scratch when I got eight feet of frost and three feet of snow from November till March. So I’m not going to get as much of a bang for my bark on our climate positive practices of cover cropping as south west Ontario. And I’m definitely not going to compare to Brazil. In Brazil, a cover crop is an absolute must wear zero. In western Canada, it’s an absolute. We almost have to do it. It’s so much better for our soil. And so that’s what I mean, is that we need a global theory of a reduction, but we need to understand that it’s going to be regional strategies and the data and science behind each of those regional strategies so that we don’t use one paint, brush and paint everybody into having to use certain management practices that might actually make no sense in their region.
Speaker 1 [00:28:10] Christian feels more attention needs to be paid to the sustainability of regional economies which are struggling due to urbanization and what he calls the brain drag into the cities. He’s been very outspoken on this issue, speaking to media and governments right across the country.
Speaker 4 [00:28:26] The one group of people that gives me anxiety is the current agriculture ministers and policymakers, because policy is the only thing that could bankrupt my farm. And so I look them in the face and said, You guys are worried about GHG emissions and all these buzzwords of sustainability, which don’t get me wrong. We’ve cared about sustainability and environment forever in agriculture. If we wreck our land or only screwing our own generation like our kids. But I said, the one thing you haven’t talked about is the sustainability of rural economies. Because if you can’t hire people on a farm and we can’t convince people to live in small towns of 500 or a thousand or 3000 people, there is going to be nobody here to partake and get the sustainable practices you want done. So until we challenge that and quit what I call the brain drag into the cities, well, we’re going to have a problem in agriculture and small business in general in rural areas for a long time. And yet the majority of Canadian GDP comes from natural resources, which are in the middle of cities.
Speaker 2 [00:29:21] So listening to that, Christian clearly feels there needs to be some more incentivization for workers to move to farming communities.
Speaker 1 [00:29:29] And not just any workers, but people can deliver on the newest farming techniques. So just before we wind up, I want to bring Evan Fraser back for a minute. He’s the director of the Arrow Food Institute, who we heard from earlier, the guy from the University of Guelph doing experiments about growing food on Mars. Evan says we need to encourage the next generation to think differently about what a career in agriculture can look like.
Speaker 3 [00:29:53] While ag and food is a huge growth industry, the jobs in agriculture are not spending your life spent pulling weeds out of a strawberry patch anymore. They’re high tech jobs. They’re knowledge economy jobs. They’re jobs that involve lab coats just as often as they involve tractors. So, yes, we need people to go into the sector. We desperately do. And I’m now speaking as an educator and a University of Guelph employee who trains the next generation. We really need to get young people energized by the sector, but we need to remind people that this is part of the knowledge economy. This is just as cool as aerospace. In fact, I know a lot of kids that trained as aerospace engineers and have found better work working for greenhouses, applying their skills of robotics and sensor and artificial intelligence to make greenhouses more efficient because frankly, greenhouses employ more people than aerospace does. So I think there’s a sales job that we’ve got this impression that ag and ag employment is in a rural environment with a red barn and a straw hat and a pitchfork. And we’ve got those sort of impressions for historic reasons. But to any young people that might be listening to this conversation, I would say two things. One, there are jobs in agriculture. There is good jobs in agriculture, their knowledge, economy, jobs. And two, you can actually participate in this workforce, in this sector of the economy, and also be contributing to a huge moral mission, which is to sustainably feed the world’s growing population without wrecking the planet.
Speaker 2 [00:31:22] Fascinating conversations, John, and certainly a lot to chew on.
Speaker 1 [00:31:27] Oh, no, not food jokes.
Speaker 2 [00:31:30] If Canada hopes to cut 85% of emissions from the agricultural supply chain by 2050, it’s becoming clearer that certain things will need to be done. We have to take advantage of available and emerging technology and mobilize finance and policy to support growers.
Speaker 1 [00:31:46] To do this will need to invest in emissions reducing technologies that address the critical drivers of our agricultural emissions. We need to do better with fertilizer production and use methane in manure and from cattle digestion, all of which we’re going to get into in the next episode.
Speaker 2 [00:32:02] And don’t forget regenerative agriculture practices like the No till farming use by Christian, which can help transform farming into a carbon sink rather than a source of carbon emissions, which, by the way, is also an important reframe. Agriculture and growers are an essential part of the climate solution and need to be viewed as such.
Speaker 1 [00:32:21] Exactly. Getting the right people in place with the right skills to get the job done. I think about what Evan had to say about the extraordinary shifts going on in farm technology and the skills required to work a farm or in fact, work through the food supply chain. Often think of my own grandfather, who was a potato farmer in New Brunswick, and how he would see farming today. With all the technology, artificial intelligence sensors in every field, drones and data systems that every farmer has to be advanced with is really making it one of the most exciting fields for anyone to aspire to.
Speaker 2 [00:32:58] And then with Murad, he talks about getting out of the commodity cycle into the ingredient and food cycle. How do we upscale? How do we capture value, and how do we leave that value in our communities?
Speaker 1 [00:33:08] And how do we convince people to live in small towns of 500 or a thousand people? I think back to what Christian had to say about the glue of communities. Even in this digital work from anywhere world, we all want places where we can gather, whether it’s a coffee shop or a community center or a hockey rink. Small towns thrive when they have that community infrastructure, and we need to appreciate that an agriculture economy is only going to thrive when there is that community infrastructure right across the country.
Speaker 2 [00:33:40] Well, that’s all for now. Thanks to our guests, Kristjan Hebert, Murad Al-Katib and Evan Fraser. Join us next time for part two of The Growing Challenge, when we’ll look at the important role that dairy and beef producers play in feeding the world while helping to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Until then, I’m Theresa Do.
Speaker 1 [00:34:00] And I’m John Stackhouse. This is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 2 [00:34:09] Disruptors, an RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by JAR audio. For more disruptors content, like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit rbc dot com slash disruptors.
Jennifer Marron produces "Disruptors, an RBC podcast". Prior to joining RBC, Jennifer spent five years as Community Manager at MaRS Discovery District and cultivated a large network of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and partners to support the Canadian startup ecosystem. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, Financial Post, Techvibes, IT Business, CWTA Magazine and Procter & Gamble’s magazine, Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @J_Marron.
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