Canada's agriculture sector on cusp of significant growth and transformation

But producers must adapt quickly to a global industry powered by cognitive machines and a skills-savvy workforce.
RBC
September 03, 2019
By RBC
Canada must embrace a skills agenda and boost innovation to capitalize on the rising demand for agricultural products around the world according to a new report from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).

The report estimates the sector's GDP could reach $51 billion in output by 2030 – up from $32 billion today – if the right investments in people and technology are made.

"Within the coming decade, there will be about nine billion people to feed around the world – over one billion more than today," said John Stackhouse, senior vice-president, RBC. "Our sector is well-positioned to supply the rising demand. Canada is consistently ranked one of the world's top five exporters, and we anticipate trade agreements with Europe, the United States and the Pacific Rim region will enable our producers to tap into large and fast-growing markets."

Yet the report cites a number of challenges that may undermine the sector's prospects. The current shortage of Canadian agriculture workers is expected to grow to an estimated 123,000 positions by 2030. Moreover, new skills are required to manage the farm of the future, as automation and new and emerging technologies become as essential to farming as water or fertilizer.

These challenges are exacerbated by a number of structural issues. Canada's rural population growth has remained flat for the past thirty years, which makes it harder to address labour shortages. Additionally, the bulk of the sector's capital is held in large, illiquid assets such as farmland and barns. And high operating costs hamper a producer's ability to invest in new technologies. These and other factors have resulted in uneven adoption and usage of advanced technologies across the country.

A number of the report's recommendations stem from RBC's consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, including producers, industry groups, and academia on the sustainability of the agriculture workforce and the opportunities presented by new technologies. Additionally, the report urges:
  • The federal government to convene a national skills strategy for agriculture, together with employers, workers, educators and industry groups, to plan for future labour needs
  • Industry groups to co-ordinate efforts on a bold campaign to attract and retain more youth, women, Indigenous people and new Canadians in agriculture
  • Canada's work-integrated learning strategy to incorporate agriculture as a key sector, to increase exposure for non-agriculture students across the agri-food industry
  • Ensure all major research and development initiatives, such as the Protein Supercluster, are linked to education and skills development
  • The federal government should reduce barriers to high skilled immigration to agriculture, and consider a dedicated service channel under the Global Skills Strategy
  • Accelerate the development of industry-wide data governance standards, in accordance with Canada's Digital Charter, to increase access to the best data and insights on food production
  • Fulfill the federal commitment to provide high-speed Internet to the remaining 1.5 million rural and remote households within 10 years, giving them access to online learning and cloud computing
  • Learn and apply lessons from countries like the Netherlands, Australia and Israel on approaches to agricultural human capital
  • Recognize agriculture's centrality to Canada's future health and prosperity
"Feeding a hungry world presents a historic opportunity for Canada if we can figure out how to better match people, capital and innovation in the agriculture space," said Stackhouse. "We believe Canada can once again be an agriculture superpower, and do it in a way that cuts greenhouse gas emissions, and supports thousands of communities that still help to define our country."

For more information, visit: Farmer 4.0: How the Coming Skills Revolution Can Transform Agriculture

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