The need to produce food in a more sustainable manner has never been more critical. With a growing global population, climate change, political instability, supply chain disruptions, rising costs and labour shortages, innovation is needed to ensure food security for Canadians—and the rest of the world.

Innovative business models and advanced technologies will address some of the fundamental problems plaguing the agricultural industry, such as climate change—which is resulting in an increasing number of severe weather events, such as droughts, floods and hail, that can damage crops.

For example, new farming methods such as vertical or subterranean farming will allow us to produce food anywhere in Canada, all year round, using less water and fewer resources, while protecting crops from severe weather events.

They would also allow us to grow different types of food not normally associated with a particular area, like growing strawberries in Toronto. At the same time, it brings food closer to consumers, protecting Canada from an overreliance on international markets and global supply chains—an issue laid bare early on in the pandemic with empty shelves in grocery stores.

AgTech: Doing more with less

Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, robotics, autonomous vehicles and blockchain are transforming the agricultural industry, helping farmers and producers do more with less.

AgTech will be used to increase yields with fewer resources, creating more sustainable operations. From connected sensors for monitoring soil moisture levels, to blockchain for food traceability, farmers and producers can use technological tools to get an end-to-end view of their operations and supply chains.

Blockchain, for example, can provide real-time visibility, traceability and transparency in the supply chain, so consumers will know exactly where their food is coming from. For farmers and producers, access to this data allows them to make better decisions, such as adjusting production to meet demand, which helps to reduce food waste and contribute to sustainability.

The use of AgTech will also help farmers and producers solve labour shortage issues. By replacing mundane, routine tasks with robotic process automation, they can redistribute the labour pool to areas where they add more value. For example, robotic milkers are being used on dairy farms to milk cows, but the technology can also simultaneously test milk quality. In turn, dairy farmers can reduce their labour costs and focus their efforts on animal welfare.

What Canada can learn from other countries

Canada has an opportunity to learn from leaders in AgTech. The Netherlands, for example, is the second-largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world and considered a leader in sustainable agriculture, according to the World Economic Forum. Yet, it's a tiny country in comparison to Canada, and land and labour is expensive, so the Dutch have turned to innovative agricultural practices to compete on the global stage.

Foresight, Canada's cleantech accelerator that brings together innovators, industry, investors, government and academia, is urging Canada to invest in greenhouse infrastructure as our climate becomes less predictable. This involves a completely different way of farming, but Canada could build on practices already established in the Netherlands to navigate this transition.

For example, the Netherland's Duijvestijn Tomatoes embodies the concept of precision farming. Geothermal energy heats its greenhouse, and tomato plants grow in a hydroponic system that allows plants to soak up water even if moisture levels are low. The company's greenhouses take up 14 hectares, yet produce 100 million tomatoes per year. By applying some of these techniques in Canada, we could dramatically increase our food security.

How to get started

The scale of this transformation is enormous, so farmers and producers should take a step back and look at the specific business challenges facing their operation. Is it labour shortages? Is it inefficiencies? Is it the unpredictability of extreme weather events? Here are some considerations when starting on the AgTech journey:

  • Define your aspirations. Perhaps you want to increase automation to reduce labour costs. Or perhaps you want to experiment with vertical farming to increase yields while protecting your crops from severe weather events. Once you understand your starting point, you can understand your options.
  • Create a business case. Digital transformation often requires a significant investment in time, money and resources—and a willingness to completely upend the status quo—so it's important to have a roadmap. After defining your aspirations, create a business case for each of those aspirations so you have a clear understanding of what's involved.
  • Learn from others. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Look at best practices and use cases in AgTech (including leaders in sustainable agriculture, like the Netherlands). You don't necessarily need to be a leader, but to remain competitive you should be a fast follower. They key is to get started on the journey, look for areas where you can have an impact and measure your successes along the way.
  • Don't try to do everything at once. Technology is advancing rapidly, so what you see in the market today could be totally different six months from now. Taking a slow, measured approach is invaluable—you want to make sure you're taking advantage of the newest technologies, but not necessarily being first out of the gate.

Looking ahead

One of KPMG's 20 predictions for 20 years is that we'll produce and consume food in a whole new way, where innovations will be harnessed to protect the environment and feed the world. Farmers may become more like data scientists, monitoring their operations from a control room and using robots, aerial drones and connected sensors for precision agriculture.

Innovation in AgTech means using advanced technologies to increase yields while lowering production costs. But it may also mean chasing new market opportunities or rethinking the way farmers and producers interact with consumers, such as direct-to-consumer business models. Innovation will come in many forms—but it all starts with taking that first step.

New technologies and innovations will lead to more sustainable growing practices, which will result in higher profitability for farmers and producers—in turn fuelling their ability to continue investing in new technologies and innovations. Ultimately, this can help Canada to become more competitive, not just in domestic markets but on a global scale, and lead the way in AgTech innovation.

  • These Dutch tomatoes can teach the world about sustainable agriculture article, World Economic Forum, Nov 27, 2019.
  • Reflections from COP26: Lessons in Agtech from the Netherlands, Foresight Canada, Nov 3, 2021.

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