While Canadians are more and more removed from food production, they also have access to a mass of information and sometimes conflicting messaging about agriculture and technology. No wonder it can be difficult to discern what is science-based and factual or what is misleading.
As a result, over the past five years, only one in three Canadian consumers believes our country’s food system is headed in the right direction. Although this number seems alarmingly low, it also comes with some good news: three in five Canadians are interested in knowing more about agriculture and modern farming practices, and 96 per cent agree that Canadian farmers are good stewards of the land.
In our research, we have found much alignment between the values of consumers and the goals of the farming community: everyone wants to have a good quality of life, including access to healthy and affordable food. Environmental sustainability is another priority both consumers and farmers share, with science and technology helping to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
Canadian farmers and food producers are charged with engaging with consumers to create awareness about our country’s safe and transparent food system, which also makes a significant contribution to the economy.
The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity has the mandate to co-ordinate research, resources, dialogue and training to advance understanding and public trust (www.foodintegrity.ca).
For the most part, Canadian consumers have never seen empty store shelves or panic-buying behaviour. They have not faced such serious issues that may have inspired them to dig deep into the complexities of a system that, in normal times, appears to work seamlessly. How, then, can farmers and food producers explain short-term disturbances in the supply chain or challenges related to raising livestock and producing during a global pandemic?
It’s up to the community of farmers and food producers to set the record straight on what is happening in the food system, especially since there has been confusing – or even contradictory – messaging about the impact of COVID-19. For example, growers have been citing the need for the essential skills brought by seasonal workers at a time when thousands of Canadians were out of work.
Not only is it important for the public to understand the critical role agriculture is playing in this crisis, it is also a great time to highlight some of the initiatives that are happening across Canada by the thousands of people working in the food system.
Examples are donations of huge quantities of milk, eggs, meat, vegetables and cash to food banks; growers donating flower bouquets to communities; drive-by tractor parades with farmers thanking health-care workers, and more.
Above all, people working in our food system need to keep reassuring consumers that the agri-food sector is doing its best to respond quickly and ensure the availability of high-quality, safe and affordable food – while not straying from the values that are important to Canadians in the process, such as animal welfare, ethical labour, food prices, environmental stewardship and more.
Farm & Food Care has the mandate to provide credible information on food and farming (www.farmfoodcare.org).
Technology and innovation
About two-thirds of Canadian farmers adopted new technology in 2019, according to Farm Credit Canada research.
In agriculture and food production, technology innovation promises solutions for challenges related to labour, food safety, risk management and efficiency, yet many Canadian farms have to navigate the complexity and return on investment for some of the technologies available.
What’s more, farmers who are not among early adopters have to compete with those who eagerly embrace technology advances.
Among the technology solutions at the forefront of shaping the agricultural space are data analysis, artificial intelligence, sensor technology and apps, and robotics. As the next generation of robots is surfacing in autonomous agriculture, farms of the future are likely to be scaled around the use of robots and driverless technology.
While this means that the next generation of farmers needs to be technology-savvy, it can potentially make it easier to attract new talent to the industry (who doesn’t want to work with robots?).
These innovations will allow farmers to expand and grow their operations, and developments in precision agriculture are already playing an important role in reducing the environmental footprint of the industry.
In order to remain competitive and maintain Canada’s foothold as a trusted and reliable food supplier for the local market as well as globally, farmers must adopt a mindset of continuous improvement.
From robots and AI to sustainability, the Canadian food system will depend on progressive thinking and the warm embrace of technology to solve the food problems of the future.
Farm Credit Canada is a lender that invests 100 per cent in Canadian agriculture and food (www.fcc-fac.ca).
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.