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Precision agriculture is transforming Canadian farms into high-tech operations.LivingImages/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

High-tech is not typically a term associated with agriculture. At first glance, there appears to be little connection between fields of gently waving wheat or herds of peacefully grazing cattle. But behind these idyllic scenes on farms across Canada is cutting-edge technology that is revolutionizing the way food is produced and processed.

It all falls under the broad umbrella of precision agriculture (PA), described in a research report by the University of Guelph as key to feeding a growing population, helping farmers be as productive and environmentally and economically sustainable as possible while ensuring the food supply remains safe and wholesome.

The latest agribusiness market study released by Calgary Economic Development noted that the global “smart agriculture” market was worth US$5-billion in 2016 and is expected to grow to US$15-billion by 2025. Precision farming’s market size was estimated to be US$7-billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to US$12.8-billion by 2025.

As illustrated by the content of this feature and the second part that will be published tomorrow, the challenges and opportunities of agricultural technology are driving the evolution of farming in Canada.

But more needs to be done, says Cornelia Kreplin, interim CEO of the Edmonton, Alberta-based Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN), a not-for-profit company launched in 2019 with financial backing from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

CAAIN comprises technology and agri-food companies, universities, colleges and research institutions working together to create new technological solutions to address the biggest challenges facing Canada’s agri-food sector.

“Canada urgently needs to bridge the gap between today’s – and tomorrow’s – emerging technologies and traditional resource-oriented industries,” says Dr. Kreplin. “Perhaps nowhere is this so essential as in the agri-food sector, which faces one of our world’s most critical problems: as our global population continues to grow, the amount of food, land and water available becomes more constrained. Never has it been more essential to find new ways to produce more with less.”

Dr. Kreplin notes that until quite recently it had been difficult for agri-food producers to work directly with the researchers and technology companies to shape emerging technologies into real tools that can be applied to farming and food production, limiting the adoption of new techniques and technologies.

But by working together, she believes agri-food producers can help technology companies understand their unique needs and develop technological solutions to challenges within the agri-food sector. This will allow tech firms to create, validate, commercialize and scale new products for the global agri-market.

While many companies with historical ties to agriculture are continuing to develop products to improve the quality and safety of farm inputs like seeds and chemical applications, and the automation of machinery and equipment, the technology requirements of PA are attracting newcomers as well.

We have a responsibility to help feed the 10 billion people we expect to be on this planet by 2050. To do that, we will need to increase agricultural production by between 50 and 70 per cent from current levels.

Dr. Cornelia Kreplin
Interim CEO of Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network

For example, late last year TELUS launched TELUS Agriculture, a new business unit dedicated to providing innovative solutions to support the agriculture industry with connected technology, which the Canadian Federation of Agriculture says is essential to the success of PA.

TELUS Agriculture aims to optimize the food value chain by leveraging data in new ways to increase efficiency, production and yields, delivering better food outcomes for businesses and the end consumer.

At the launch of the new division, TELUS president and CEO Darren Entwistle said by digitizing the entire value chain and linking these technologies together for the first time, TELUS Agriculture would facilitate a secure exchange of information to allow farmers and ranchers, agri-business organizations, the agri-food industry and the consumer to make smarter decisions.

Dr. Kreplin says agriculture presents Canada with both a social responsibility and an economic opportunity.

“We have a responsibility to help feed the 10 billion people we expect to be on this planet by 2050. To do that, we will need to increase agricultural production by between 50 and 70 per cent from current levels,” she says.

And technology will play a key role, adds Dr. Kreplin.

“If we employ precision agriculture and other related technology, we should be able to sustainably improve production of agricultural products for further processing either here in Canada or abroad,” she says.

The big challenge will be to achieve increased production on a fixed land base and with less water due to the changing climate.

“So we’re going to have to, first of all, do things differently and do a better job of using the land base we have,” adds Dr. Kreplin.

And that all comes back to technology.

“The Canadian farm of the future will, first of all, need to be profitable,” says Dr. Kreplin. “It will need to have implemented all the appropriate technology it needs to continually improve its productivity in a sustainable way. And it will rely on the data generated through the technology for that continuous improvement,” she says.

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