Telus Corp. is launching a new business focused on digitizing the world’s food-supply system, bringing together several companies it’s acquired in the burgeoning agricultural-technology industry.
The Vancouver-based telecom has bought seven companies in the sector over the past two years to create its Telus Agriculture division. which aims to help feed a growing global population by using technology to reduce food waste, increase crop yields and improve quality and safety.
The world will require 70 per cent more food in 2050 than it did in 2009 as the population rises, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“The fields are not getting bigger,” says François Gratton, executive vice-president and group president at Telus and chair of Telus Agriculture, Telus Health and Telus Québec. “The pressure that we already have today is only going to keep increasing.”
However, those fields can be made more efficient through the use of technology, for instance by installing internet-connected sensors that can help farmers more precisely monitor their crops. Technology can also help cut down on food waste by tracking products from the farm to the customer’s home, leading to more precisely targeted food recalls, says Mr. Gratton.
“Our goal is to help make sure that we can increase the quality and the safety of our food, from farm to fork," Mr. Gratton says.
Telus’s foray into what’s known as the agtech industry follows the approach it took when building Telus Health, by assembling smaller electronic medical records companies into a single, national entity. Over the past decade, Telus has injected $3.2-billion into its health division, which now brings in roughly $800-million in annual revenue.
The health and agriculture industries face similar challenges, Mr. Gratton says. Both tend to lag in their adoption of new technologies and suffer from a lack of information sharing between various participants along the supply chain.
Telus’s most recent agtech acquisitions are of AFS Technologies, a Florida-based supply-chain-management provider to the consumer goods industry and Agrian, a California-based company in the business of using technology to make bring greater precision to farming practices.
Others include British food traceability firm Muddy Boots, B.C.-based farm-management software provider Farm At Hand and Decisive Farming, a precision agriculture and farm management company out of Alberta.
The only one large enough to require Telus to report is AFS Technologies, which it bought for $315-million in August.
Through these acquisitions, Telus has built a team of 1,200 employees in 10 countries. The business unit now supports roughly 100 million acres of agricultural land worldwide.
Although Telus Agriculture is a global play focused on technology services, providing connectivity to farms will be a major part of its business in Canada, Mr. Gratton says.
Data collection is becoming increasingly important to farmers, says Whitney Rockley, co-founder and managing partner at Toronto-based McRock Capital, a venture capital firm focused on opportunities relating to the Internet of things.
However, many farmers face financial challenges that can make them hesitant to shell out for technology services, Ms. Rockley says. That’s particularly true during bad growing seasons, when many farmers are just trying to survive, says Ms. Rockley, who was chair of the board at Decisive Farming before it was bought by Telus.
“It’s a very prudent customer base," she said of farmers. "They want to make sure that if they’re using solutions they can really see what the benefit’s going to be [and that] it’s not going to break the bank.”
For Telus Agriculture, government support of rural broadband initiatives will be also be critical, Mr. Gratton says.
“The importance of being able to deploy high-speed internet, whether through fibre or 5G, in remote and rural regions of Canada will be very important to the future," Mr. Gratton says. “We cannot accomplish our mission without that.”
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