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Mark Thompson doesn’t mince words when it comes to the role his industry plays to help provide global food security.

“There’s no industry that’s as important to society as agriculture. And there are few others that have to meet the kinds of demands we as a society place on it,” says Mr. Thompson, chief corporate development and strategy officer at Canadian-based Nutrien, the world’s largest provider of agricultural crop inputs and services.

In the coming decades, those demands will only increase as the world’s population continues to grow and the potential for trade and supply chain disruptions threaten food security.

The biggest challenge of all may be maintaining productivity, Mr. Thompson says, especially as climate change makes the hard work of growing food more unpredictable and increases the importance of environmental performance.

“The stakes really couldn’t be higher,” he says. “Failure to innovate just isn’t an option.”

With about 25,000 employees and operations and investments in 14 countries, Nutrien is a global leader in the production of fertilizers, but also operates the world’s largest agricultural retail and farm services business. The latter provides seeds, fertility and crop protection products, as well as agronomy services and digital solutions to help growers increase their food production and profitability in a sustainable manner.

Innovation has been at the centre of its strategy for decades: Nutrien is among the world’s largest providers of enhanced efficiency fertilizers and biological nutrition products, which allow farmers to enhance the performance of traditional fertilizers, while conserving land use and the environment. And it continues to lead the development of new technologies to drive safer and more efficient methods of mining potash – a potassium-rich mineral used as fertilizer.

Recently, it’s also established a global leadership position in the digitization of offerings to drive a step-change in efficiency and decision-making on the farm. These decisions are complex and involve things like selecting the best type of seed to plant in a specific field, monitoring for pests and disease, determining what kind of crop inputs are needed and securing financing or specialized services, often on very short notice.

“Look at the huge number of critical decisions and actions a grower has to take throughout a season,” Mr. Thompson says. “Anything that can integrate and improve that process is potentially a game-changer. And that’s exactly what we set out to achieve by marrying the longstanding relationships our crop consultants have with growers with a powerful digital platform.”

A grower demonstrates Nutrien Ag Solutions’ digital tools.Supplied

This is exemplified in the digital experience hub Nutrien unveiled in 2018, which allows its crop consultants and grower customers to benefit from a suite of advanced digital tools and data science to more efficiently navigate what’s traditionally been done manually or even with pen and paper.

“Growers can take a digital view of their whole season and streamline that planning,” Mr. Thompson says. “They can plan crops by field and model economic and sustainability outcomes. They can research custom product recommendations and they can fulfill the crop plan using an integrated e-commerce engine.”

He says the digital platform can also monitor and model for weather, helping growers determine when they can get in the field to protect against disease, alongside numerous other uses.

“This whole experience allows growers to take swift and even pre-emptive action to protect and maximize crop production, while supporting better environmental outcomes on the farm,” he says.

Over time, more of the services and software surfaced in that digital hub will also come from partnerships with other companies across the industry. That’s part of the reason why Nutrien is also focused on supporting early-stage companies developing their own exciting innovations.

In the past two years it’s done that in two major ways here in Canada: The first was a partnership between Nutrien and Radicle Growth, a California-based acceleration fund that focuses on agricultural technology. Radicle Growth is known for putting together next-level innovation challenges in the United States and globally, but the Nutrien-Radicle Challenge was the first partnership of its kind in the Canadian ag-tech space, and the first time Radicle had focused on Canada, with more than 100 companies applying nationwide.

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Nutrien will be working with challenge winners including Vancouver’s Terramera Inc., which develops natural alternatives to synthetic pesticides, and Calgary’s Livestock Water Recycling Inc., which turns manure into fertilizer, while recycling the water content for reuse.

“We’re working now with both of these companies to find new ways to support their technology,” Mr. Thompson says. “And we see a big opportunity for collaboration with companies at this stage to bring new innovation to growers here in Canada and around the world.”

More recently, Nutrien partnered with Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a non-profit with a goal to grow “massively scalable” companies beginning at the seed stage. Nutrien’s role will include working with early-stage innovators, using its deep expertise to help participants focus ideas and begin to identify commercial applications.

“Our corporate partners are active participants,” says Alice Reimer, the site lead for CDL-Rockies, housed at the University of Calgary. “Nutrien has already demonstrated through the Radicle Challenge, and their business overall that they’re committed to innovation, so it was a perfect partnership.”

“Our work with CDL is a real complement to the Nutrien Radicle Challenge,” Mr. Thompson says, “supporting even earlier-stage companies to build viable businesses. The whole ecosystem of ag innovators and new companies needs to grow and continue collaborating, because the challenges and opportunities we’re all facing together are growing too.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.