Franco Vaccarino is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Guelph, which was awarded $77-million this fall from the federal government for the Food From Thought project, intended to find sustainable ways to feed a growing world population.
Nine billion: That's roughly how many people are expected to populate the Earth by mid-century. How will we feed our growing world without compromising the planet's ecosystems?
The Canadian agricultural sector produces some of the finest crops and livestock in the world. Farmers have tried to lessen their environmental impact, but agriculture will always consume resources.
About 30 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Farming is our largest source of water pollution through runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. You might say that our agrifood system often bites the land that feeds us.
This week brings government ministers and officials from Canada, the United States and Mexico to Niagara Falls, Ont., to discuss trade, development and co-operation under the annual Tri-National Agricultural Accord.
The group will talk about continent-wide issues, but Canada's agricultural sector has a wider opportunity to help feed the world.
Here are three agrifood opportunities that delegates at this week's meeting ought to discuss, based on what farming is not.
Agriculture is not just about growing food. Certainly, farmers feed people and entire cities. But our agricultural sector also drives economies and communities.
Speaking this month at the Public Policy Forum's growth summit in Ottawa, Dominic Barton, chair of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, pointed to agriculture as one of Canada's strengths.
Ontario alone is a food-processing powerhouse, with about 3,000 businesses in the sector employing 100,000 people. Nationally, the agrifood industry employs one in eight Canadians – 2.3 million people. We are the fifth-largest agricultural exporter in the world. Production and trade in the farming sector help pay for health, education and other social services that we all rely on. The agricultural sector also ensures our rural communities remain viable.
Agriculture isn't just tractors. In a digital revolution in agriculture, more and more of our farm equipment will consist of smart, data-driven machines.
Robotic milking systems are already at work in the dairy industry. Airborne drones and satellites monitor soil moisture to determine irrigation requirements or optimum planting times.
Farmers can use a smartphone app to identify insects in their fields and predict and control pest infestations. Imagine self-driving tractors that automatically plant, fertilize and irrigate crops without wasting seed, nutrients or water.
In his recent talk, Mr. Barton called for Canada to capitalize on computing power, connectedness and big data. Precision agriculture based on real-time information technology will help us deliver and manage resources to produce food and reduce our environmental footprint. Big data is the new farm nutrient.
Agriculture is not just about growing more food. The green revolution of the mid-20th century was about making more food, especially for famine-threatened parts of the developing world.
Today, we produce enough food to meet the dietary needs of our world population. The United Nations estimates that there are about 2,850 dietary calories available daily for every man, woman and child on the planet.
But we waste almost one-third of the food we make. And what food that is not wasted is poorly shared. Parts of the world are obese and overweight even as others endure malnourishment and hunger.
It's not just the amount of food we produce that's important. What will define this century is how we produce and distribute that food.
We need to recognize the contributions of the agricultural sector to our economy and our way of life. We need to use information technology and big data to farm smarter. And beyond the Tri-National Agricultural Accord, we need to find better ways to share food for our growing world.