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Syngenta Digital Solutions app showing a heatmap of a field.supplied

There was a time when Canadian farmers relied on little more than gut feeling and Old Farmer’s Almanac to decide when to plant and when to harvest, hoping the weather would reward their efforts. That was about as precise as they could be.

The 20th century heralded a new age for agriculture with the development of modern, self-propelled farm machinery to plough, plant and harvest and a more science-based approach to critical aspects of farming such as soil analysis and pesticide use.

With the 21st century now into its second decade, farming is moving quickly into the next phase of its evolution – precision agriculture (PA). Science and digitization are turning Canada’s farms into high-tech businesses supported by some of the world’s most advanced technology companies and equipment manufacturers.

The importance of this evolution cannot be stressed enough, says Trevor Heck, president, Syngenta Canada.

“To meet the needs of consumers and be an economic powerhouse for Canada, agriculture businesses will need to be leaders in digital technology,” he says. “This requires investment in tools and technology, the workforce to support the technology, as well as access to high-speed internet to enable these tools.”

Syngenta’s Canadian business provides farmers with innovative integrated crop solutions such as crop protection, seed care, seeds and digital solutions.

“Digital technologies are rapidly transforming agriculture and have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about, and do, food production,” says Mr. Heck. “It’s an exciting time in agriculture because we’re seeing a shift in thinking by farmers, consumers and governments about agriculture as both a technology- and innovation-focused sector.”

He notes that 20 years ago he worked in a digital technology role with Syngenta, which shows that the company has long known that data-driven decision-making would be important to the future of farming.

“Now we’re at the point where that data is being gathered and used to support smarter and more precise farming practices, which contribute to a better environmental outcome, lead to success for farmers and support their ability to manage risk,” adds Mr. Heck.

The digital technologies that constitute PA perform a wide range of functions, from sensors in farm equipment that gather real-time data as they pass in the field, to diagnostic apps that predict weather and crop diseases, to aerial images from satellites or drones to monitor crop growth.

The benefits of PA in the U.S. were documented in a report by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and four partner groups that showed digital tools alone helped farmers realize a 6-per-cent improvement in both fertilizer efficiency and fossil fuels reduction, a 9-per-cent improvement in herbicide application efficiency and a 4-per-cent improvement in crop yields.

Whether Canadian farmers can achieve similar results could depend on improving broadband internet coverage needed to fully utilize the power of digital technology.

“If we are going to satisfy environmentally conscious consumers and be an economic driver for Canada, agriculture will need to be leaders in digital technology,” says Mr. Heck. “These advancements are not possible without reliable access to broadband internet, which we know is lacking for so many farmers in Canada. The commitment in this regard by federal and provincial governments is paramount.”

Jarred Cohen, policy advisor at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, agrees that more needs to be done to establish the infrastructure needed to support digital transformation.

The Canadian Chamber has called on the federal government to provide ongoing funding and incentives for digitization and called for a commitment to promote the long-term growth of the digital economy and modernize policies to encourage investment and innovation throughout the internet ecosystem.

“These recommendations are important for our food and farming sector because we know this is a sector well positioned to support Canada’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery,” says Mr. Cohen.

He points out that The Barton Report in 2017 highlighted the strong potential for agriculture to help spur economic growth and build on Canada’s reputation as a trusted global leader in safe, nutritious and sustainable food in the 21st century.

But to get there, Canada must overcome several hurdles, including regulatory barriers that hinder innovation and competitiveness, and a lack of reliable broadband needed to take advantage of new digital technologies.

While last year’s government announcement of a $1.75-billion Universal Broadband Fund is a positive move to address the digital barriers faced by rural and remote Canadian communities, there is still a long way to go, says Mr. Cohen.

“For agriculture, this lack of high-speed internet in rural and remote areas means a slower adoption of digital technologies,” he adds. “If Canada wants to remain competitive on a global stage and reach the ambitious targets set out for agricultural exports by our government, then we need to keep pace with innovation.”

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