Developing smarter farming practices that tackle the challenge of feeding a rising population sustainably, while addressing the role of climate change on food systems, calls for new ideas and technologies coming from a workforce with diverse backgrounds, talents and experiences.
Digital experts, mathematicians, engineers, communicators, data analysts, robotics specialists and more are needed to apply their knowledge and perspectives to the future of farming, says Trevor Heck, president of Syngenta Canada Inc., a leader in crop protection and seed innovation.
“The issue is not just what we feed the world, it’s how we do it,” he says. “We need to open the floor to more ideas, more people, more backgrounds.”
Syngenta, as a science and innovation company, recently committed $2-billion over five years targeted at delivering a “step change” in agricultural sustainability, says Mr. Heck, noting that there is a growing public interest in the topic.
“Eating isn’t going out of style,” he says, and consumers “want to see their food have a high level of nutrition and a lower impact on the planet.” Meanwhile, a wide range of specialists need to turn their attention to it.
“Software engineers aren’t looking for jobs in agriculture,” Mr. Heck explains. “We have to go find those people and bring them into the industry.”
Those with digital skills, for example, can help growers make data-driven decisions that lead to better outcomes while protecting the environment, he says. “Using predictive software and artificial intelligence to help find efficiencies will enable unprecedented precision.”
Syngenta is “venturing outside of our agriculture universe,” in developing such talent, he says. Of its 300 employees across Canada, some 40 work on the company’s R&D team, and Syngenta works to “deliver constant innovation” in the wider industry.
Similarly, farmers are looking to expand and invest in their businesses with new technologies.
Mark Vandenbosch, the Kraft Professor of Marketing at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario, says that farmers are looking to upgrade their business skills and focus on issues like long-term strategy, managing people and financial management for their “increasingly large” operations. He delivers several executive learning programs offered to Syngenta customers at Ivey.
“Farming is a capital-intensive, risky business that is not the easiest to navigate,” says Mr. Vandenbosch, who grew up on a family cash-crop farm. He predicts that agriculture is going to be one of the leading applications of AI and Internet of Things technologies. For example, “you’re going to see autonomous vehicles much sooner in the fields than on the roads,” and growers are already using drones and testing out robotic seeders to be more productive and efficient.
“The opportunity is huge,” Mr. Vandenbosch says, although farmers must be able to continuously consider “how to make an investment in radically new technology.” Meanwhile a younger generation, both rural and urban, needs to learn to “create better, more sustainable food.”
Mr. Heck comments that the future of sustainable farming “will be shaped by the youth of today who are preparing for jobs in 10 to 20 years.” Syngenta is working “to connect with this group and share with them the exciting opportunities in agriculture and food innovation, as well as the great social value and pride that comes with it,” he says.
The company is also recruiting and retaining young talent through flexible work schedules and technology that allows its people to collaborate remotely.
“We know we don’t have all the answers, but we’re committed to continuing to listen, engage and work with others,” Mr. Heck adds. “It’s an opportunity for the industry as a whole to tap into a passion for food, for sustainability and for taking care of the planet. And it’s a big opportunity for Canada.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.