The global food system is midway through another summer of discontent. Pandemic-induced labour shortages linger while rampant inflation rattles the supply chain. Commodity prices are skyrocketing; United Nation officials worry that as many as a billion people may slide into greater food insecurity as everyday necessities soar out of reach. The war in Ukraine rages on, creating desperate food and fertilizer shortages in Africa, Asia, and South America. The situation is dire and poised to get worse.
While producers and consumers alike are holding our collective breaths, hoping for the global situation to return to ‘normal,’ we must also realize that the food system is being buffeted by unprecedented climate disruption. At the time of writing, extreme heat is baking Asia, Europe, and North America while fires and floods are challenging farmers globally. India and Indonesia have responded by curtailing food exports, pushing prices higher and exacerbating shortages elsewhere. The last two years are part of a worrying trend; global trade can no longer be taken for granted.
Smart countries and regions are pivoting how they produce and distribute food. In doing so, they are building systems prepared for disruptive climate events, trade restrictions, and global shortages. From leading food producing regions such as California and the Netherlands, to emerging agricultural technology powerhouses such as Singapore, there is an explosion of interest in new methods and technologies that can support intensive year-round food production. Indoor controlled environment growing can be used to produce essential fruits and vegetables in even hostile climates, while precision fermentation can produce alternative proteins without the massive environmental costs associated with animal agriculture.
In Canada, several exciting initiatives are emerging. Cubic Farms on the West Coast is growing leafy greens year-round in indoor controlled environment systems, readying us for the expected shortfalls in imports from California. FuelPositive is developing technologies to produce ammonia fertilizer directly on farms using clean electricity, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector. And venture capital funds such as Cult Food Science are supporting alternative protein start-ups to produce high quality foods with a small environmental impact. On their own, these are impressive initiatives. But as a nation, we lag behind the real superpowers. The federal government should invest in a national agriculture and technology strategy.
This strategy should be based on four key pillars.
First, we must relocalize food. We need to be able to guarantee a year-round supply of the essential crops we rely upon, particularly the fruits and vegetables that are necessary to human nutrition and public health. New technologies can support intensive year-round food production within markets that are currently dependent on imports for the bulk of their food supply. This means investments in controlled environment agriculture and alternative protein production (especially cellular agriculture). Developing these technologies must be explicit focus areas for our research councils and for ISED support.
Second, farming across our nation must use new technologies and management practices to embrace regenerative agriculture, thereby turning farmland from a source of greenhouse gas emissions to a carbon sink. New fertilizer technology, smart tractors, soil sensors, and remote sensing data give farmers tools to regenerate the soil, reduce inputs, and boost productivity. Governments can help by working with industry to create both markets that put a price on greenhouse gases (thus rewarding farming who are part of the climate solution) as well as creating the measurements, verification, and reporting tools the sector needs to account for how greenhouse gases may be absorbed by the soil.
Third, we must recruit young people into joining the sector by prioritizing training in ag technologies. We need the next generation of knowledge workers to be interested in food and agriculture. And we must realize that in the future, a farmer is as likely to wear a lab coat as work in a barn or drive a tractor.
Finally, we need to realize that to compete with the best in the world we need to create agricultural innovation zones within two or three major Canadian cities that will create a critical mass of connections between government, industry, universities, and a technologically skilled workforce. Only by doing this, will we have any chance of incubating a home-grown “silicon valley of food.”
There is a wave of ag-tech innovation sweeping the world that is one of the most creative and exciting frontiers of science. The two authors of this piece recently visited a start-up in California making salmon sashimi without any salmon. We also ate one of the world’s first animal free dairy products, an excellent ice-cream that came out of a fermentation tank that would have fit in a micro-brewery. Canada can and should be leading this trend – yet while other countries are preparing for a crisis in the global food system, we continue to rely on food imports in many crucial sectors. In most Canadian cities, locally produced fruits and vegetables remain largely inaccessible for much of the year, except to the wealthy. And while Canada boasts about being a global player in terms of food and agriculture, we cannot keep up with innovations in cellular agriculture and alternative protein production. The missing ingredient? Massive investments and a national strategy to drive an agricultural technology revolution that will prepare our food systems for the next century.