As a Canadian, you’ve likely come to expect that your grocery store shelves will be stocked with food. We live in a relatively wealthy country with a variety of healthy, safe and affordable food available year-round. Still, food insecurity is a growing issue both in Canada and worldwide.
Nearly 13 per cent of Canadian families can’t afford to feed themselves, statistics show, and that was well before the pandemic disrupted supply chains and caused food shortages last year. Food insecurity is expected to worsen given forecasts that Canada’s population will increase by more than 40 per cent to nearly 55 million by 2050. It’s not only a financial problem: Research shows food insecurity is associated with lower-quality diets that can lead to physical and mental health issues.
To meet the rising need for healthy, high-quality and affordable food, farmers are leaning into new technologies that help them grow more using less.
“We really have only two ways of producing more food, and that is to expand the cultivating ground and improving productivity per unit acre. And that will come down to technology,” said Alison Sunstrum, founder and chief executive officer of CNSRV-X Inc. (Conserve X), a Canadian company researching and applying emerging technology in agriculture.
Speaking during a three-part Future of Farming Series, presented by the Globe and Mail and sponsored by Bayer Canada, Ms. Sunstrum said Canada needs to significantly boost its investment in the sector if it wants to achieve its goals.
How farmers are using technology today
The industry is already using a wide array of technologies — from sensors, satellite imagery and GPS services to artificial intelligence and data analytics — to modernize operations around everything from land and soil management to energy and water use, which help boost yields and reduce its carbon footprint. Farmers rely on modern agriculture practices to help feed consumers, and many younger generations are making a career out of it.
Fourth-generation farmer Andrea Stroeve-Sawa of Shipwheel Cattle Feeders Ltd. near Taber, Alta., has been using technology to track and trace her cattle by putting radio-frequency identification tags in their ears, which is required when they are sold and relocated. She uses the tag to keep data on each specific animal while on her farm.
“When that information comes up onto the computer, it’s able to tell us everything that has happened to that animal since it’s been in my care,” Ms. Stroeve-Sawa said. “So, I can tell you how much it weighed when it came in. I can tell you what it got for vaccinations upon arrival. I can tell you if it’s ever been sick. I can tell you that what it’s been eating to the point one kilogram of dry matter per day. I can tell you if it’s ever had an antibiotic. I can tell you what ranch it actually came from.”
Added Ms. Stroeve-Sawa: “The tools that are available to us as farmers [enable us] to treat our system as a regenerative agriculture system. We then have the ability to do more with less [and] to access all that animal data in one little scan of a tag. It’s an amazing system. And I think that all of those tools are what helped contribute to securing our food system and addressing the climate effect, and hopefully storing more carbon in the soil.”
It wasn’t too long ago that, in one way, shape, or form, we as consumers would have been connected to a farm. We had more of an understanding of what happened on the farm, how our food was produced.”— Denise Hockaday, climate business lead in Canada for Bayer subsidiary The Climate Corp.
Will Bergmann, a third-generation canola farmer and restaurateur near Winnipeg, said technology has made farming more appealing for the next generation who might otherwise have left to pursue different careers.
“There’s so much technology that has allowed farmers to stay on the farm,” he said. “Quality of life is a lot different now than it was [decades] ago.”
Lesley Kelly, a farmer in Watrous, Sask. returned to her family’s farm, producing canola, lentils, wheat and seed, lured in part by technologies that help make farming a modern career choice.
“There are so many great technologies that we’re learning about and adding to the farm,” she said, citing examples such as temperature and moisture sensors use to better analyze soil and satellite and GPS technology that help provide more precise seeding and fertilizer applications.
“There are great things happening in software and data that helps us know at a granular level, what is happening in our farms and in our field. That helps us be better managers... and it really keeps us excited.”
There’s so much technology, in fact, that Ms. Kelly says it’s a challenge to keep up with everything, learn and adapt. Cost is also an issue.
“For us, it’s about determining what are the best fits for the farm and for our bottom line.”
Technology and innovation to harvest the future
To help support farmers and their mission to feed an increasingly hungry world, the federal government set a goal for Canada’s agriculture sector to be a top-five competitor in the global agri-food sector and a provider of safe, high-quality food products by 2025, while also reducing its environmental footprint.
It’s the farmers who know best how to help Canada achieve this goal, said Denise Hockaday, climate business lead in Canada for Bayer subsidiary The Climate Corp., which offers digital tools to help farmers increase productivity.
“Farmers are the best stewards of their land; they care the most about their land,” she said, adding that data and technology are critical to understanding farmers’ needs today “but also to sustain them for the future, which is really important.”
At the same time, consumers will increasingly want and need to know where their food comes from, she added, which is where technology and innovation will also play a key role.
“It wasn’t too long ago that, in one way, shape, or form, we as consumers would have been connected to a farm. We had more of an understanding of what happened on the farm, how our food was produced,” Ms. Hockaday said.
“We’ve lost our way a little bit. And now people are feeling removed and want to know more... It goes back to why there’s so much [focus] now on data, sharing, being able to use technology to be precise, sustainable, and really telling that story to producers and consumers.”
Significant investment and systematic changes are needed for the farmers to step up and meet the critical role they play in meeting consumers’ growing demand for food, Ms. Sunstrum added.
“We have to have agile access to inputs and markets. There are a lot of challenges, but I think we can actually address them if we can systemically change some of our support mechanisms for farmers,” she said. “As a country, and as businesses, we must invest in technology and innovation.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Bayer Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.