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Industry experts and academics are working together to make the future of Canadian agriculture more productive – and sustainable.Della Rollins

What’s the future of our food? Farmers, climate and technology experts came together to answer that question at Sustainable Agriculture: Technology and the Future of Food, a recent Globe and Mail symposium sponsored by McCain Foods Ltd.

The half-day event, held at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works on June 8, looked at how food producers and their supporters can work together to modernize Canadian agriculture, ensuring a sustainable, affordable food industry in the years to come.

The farming industry faces several challenges, but one stands out above the rest: climate change. Droughts and floods have wiped out entire growing seasons, interrupting harvests and creating volatility in the global supply chain. Crop yields are stagnating and soil degradation and erosion are increasing, while biodiverse ecosystems are vanishing.

Just like all Canadians, farmers want safe, affordable, plentiful and nutritious food for their families. But for that goal to be sustainable, things have to change – and fast. In fact, if farming practices were to remain as they are now, feeding the world’s population would result in an 87-per-cent increase in carbon emissions and place additional stress on other critical natural resources such as water in just 30 years.

“If we want to ensure that we have food security for future generations, we have to act now and think big,” said Charlie Angelakos, vice-president, global external affairs and sustainability at McCain Foods Ltd.

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Canada is a leader in farming sustainability thanks to innovations in science and agriculture technology (AgTech).

One example is McCain’s Farm of the Future initiative. At the company’s first test farm in Florenceville, N.B., researchers are looking for ways to improve soil health, biodiversity and productivity, while also reducing water use and greenhouse gas emissions. The farm just completed its first growing season and has already seen both strong yields and a 16-per-cent reduction in fertilizer use. The company is already planning a second Farm of the Future in South Africa, with another coming onboard by 2025.

Attendees at the Globe’s Sustainable Agriculture: Technology and the Future of Food event joined panel conversations on technological innovation, farm management and government policy.Della Rollins

Testing new technology is key to maintaining the industry’s health and sustainability. Many people have a romanticized view of farming with visions of a simpler way of life – but today, modern farming is as much about new technologies as it is about getting hands in soil.

“The farmer of the future needs different skills than the farmer of the past,” explained Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. “We have to realize that the farmer of the future is just as likely to wear a lab coat as they are to drive a tractor.”

AgTech is the key to creating sustainable farms of the future. Equipment such as autonomous machinery, satellite imagery and precision farming tools are helping growers and scientists develop more efficient and effective farms.

But these technological advances come with their own challenges. Panelists at the event highlighted the need for available, reliable and affordable broadband and cellular internet in rural areas to operate these tools.

What’s more, these technologies gather all kinds of data, but they can’t offer an overall big picture if they don’t communicate with each other, explained Christine Noronha, a research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

“We need to bring these technologies together and have a system where a grower can actually look at everything together,” she said. “A grower gets all this information, but something has to be able to put it together so that he or she can actually use that and make informed decisions.”

With tech comes costs, and with costs come barriers. The industry needs to attract skilled young people to work this high-tech equipment, as well as find creative ways to reduce costs to take advantage of the technology.

“We have to start talking to each other. We can’t be scared of somebody else benchmarking with us or seeing some of our stuff. Collaboration is the way,” said Kristjan Hebert, principal managing partner, Hebert Grain Ventures.

“We should be really proud of what Canadian agriculture has already done. Yes, we admit that we can always be better, but [we should also acknowledge] all the steps we’ve already taken to improve it so much compared to other countries in the world.”