Stimulating Innovation, Sustainable Food and Gender Empowerment

March 2, 2018
Kelly Hodgins and Evan Fraser
Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph

The federal budget contains two seemingly unrelated themes that will position the Canada’s agri-food sector to boost economic growth. These themes will also help achieve the government’s aspiration that Canada becomes the world’s trusted supplier of safe, sustainable food.

The first theme is that the Federal Budget highlights the importance of interdisciplinary work. Second, it presents a strong strategy to deepen the role of women in innovation and entrepreneurship.

While these themes may not seem immediately relevant to agriculture and food, they are two of the most important aspects to focus if we want a thriving, sustainable, economically-robust food system.

For instance, the federal budget outlines a four-stage goal for women’s empowerment that includes: data collection to understand the gender discrepancies in the current workforce; reformatting all Federal Innovation Programs to improve participation of underrepresented groups, including women; providing women greater access to capital; and increasing availability of mentorship, networking, and professional development for women entrepreneurs. Putting their money where their mouth is the federal government has committed to working with Farm Credit Canada to fund women entrepreneurs in the ag-food sector. This will have direct effects on catalyzing agriculture innovations.

However, funding alone is not sufficient, and for that reason, we are delighted to see a heavy emphasis on the fourth pillar: “helping women-led businesses grow.” The availability of skills-development and training opportunities is as important – if not at times more—as funding is.

Here at the University of Guelph, we see the potential of agri-food in spades. Canada is on the cusp of a new, highly disruptive technological revolution. There are four jobs available for every one of our graduates from our Ontario Agriculture College. But these are not traditional “farm jobs”: the food system of our future calls for app programmers, entrepreneurs, robotics engineers, data scientists, culinary professionals, and social innovators. Traditional roles in animal husbandry, crop science, soil science are important, but the workforce of the future food system is far more multidisciplinary.

Because of this, the Arrell Food Institute of the University of Guelph now runs unique programs at the undergraduate and graduate level to bring students from all disciplines into hands-on, project-based learning about food-systems topics (funded in part by the Canadian Government’s Canada First Research Excellence Fund Food from Thought). In shaping our future workforce, we understand the imperative to engage young people from all disciplines, skillsets, and backgrounds into food/agriculture topics, and we are glad to see that the Federal Government reflects a further commitment to interdisciplinarity in its programs, too.

Providing space for business incubation is also critical. And organizations such as Food Starter in Toronto, as well as the University of Guelph’s Office of Research Innovation’s new “accelerator” program are helping fill this niche. Both have seen a dramatic increase in applications by women, and as well, both have experienced a measured uptick in the number of entrepreneurial projects related to agri-food that seek business development support. The boom in agriculture innovations, food startups, and farmer entrepreneurs is impossible to ignore. It is important that adequate business support be made available (through institutes of higher education, private sector, non-profit, and government) to allow this trend to continue.

The report of the Advisory council on Economic Growth (aka the Barton Report) set a goal for Canada: to double our ag-food exports and become the world's trusted safe supplier of sustainable food in the 21st Century. Traditional training must combine with social innovation to create the next generation of agriculture and food entrepreneurs who will achieve this goal.

We are proud to be taking real and tangible steps toward these goals by developing and running educational and training programs to shape the next generation of innovative food-system actors at the University of Guelph. In that work, we are bolstered by the Federal Government’s obvious commitment to interdisciplinary approaches to solving complex challenges, and to women entrepreneurs throughout the 2018 Budget.