The Agriculture Innovation Challenge

The larger the global population grows, the more important innovation in the agriculture sector becomes. But that won't happen without greater investment and leadership at home and abroad, argues Diana Carney.
By: /
December 4, 2013
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Associate, Canada 2020

The holy grail of agriculture has now become ‘sustainable intensification’: producing more, wasting less, and doing it all in an earth-friendly way.

A significant number of countries and institutions have stated their commitment to this goal. And yet the path to achieving sustainable intensification remains far from clear. We are still figuring out how to combine the best of conventional agriculture with the best of organic/low input agriculture to create solutions tailored to the agro-ecology profile, as well as the human needs, of any given location.

The steps taken toward sustainable intensification can and should differ among countries, but continued innovation must be the common starting point. Yes, agriculture is an age-old business, but it is also one that has been evolving. It must continue to do so if we hope to feed the global population into the future..

The structure of the agriculture sector poses particular challenges to innovation.

Firstly, global agriculture is an intensely fragmented business. There are certainly mega farms and agricultural corporations that control vast portions of the U.S. and Canadian prairies (the average farm size in Saskatchewan is over 1,600 acres, more than double the whole-of-Canada average), but there are also endless smallholders throughout the world. It is not easy to promote change in such an industry, particularly among the many for whom agriculture is a way of life, not just a job.

That fact often creates a problem among older farmers, many of whom continue to occupy land long after they have lost interest in testing out new production techniques or, in some cases, even producing at all. These farmers stay because their farm is also their home. The result is limited access to land for new entrants to the industry, which deters innovation by shrinking the space available to experiment with new ideas. In many cases, it may deter new entrants altogether. Generally speaking, agriculture is often perceived as stuck in the past as opposed to a forward-looking industry, welcoming of newcomers and their new ideas, which makes it even less likely younger entrepreneurs will consider joining in the first place.

Celebrating innovation in agriculture is thus an important first step. At a recent organic farming event I attended, finalists vied for an innovation prize. They pitched their ideas to audience members who later voted on them. The pitches ranged from software programs that can help maximize honey yields (through optimizing hive placement) to new broccoli harvesters, on-line platforms for marketing farm produce directly to consumers and the eventual winner: biodegradable tree guards.

It was a wholly uplifting discussion that amply demonstrated that there are plenty of forward-thinking current and would-be farmers out there. But leaving the future of agriculture to farmers alone probably does not make sense.

There is a public good element to agriculture and governments have long played a role in agricultural science and extension (the interface between farmers and scientists through which best practices are shared).The UK provides an interesting example of renewed government effort to support agriculture in general and agricultural innovation in particular. In July 2013 it launched a £160m agricultural technologies strategy, following intensive consultation with stakeholders throughout the industry. The strategy is one of 11 launched for sectors that have the capacity to help drive the economy and increase jobs. It is intended to act as a platform for cooperation and co-investment with industry.

The strategy includes a £90m investment by the government in a series of “Centres for Agricultural Innovation” plus another £70m to fund part of an “Agri-Tech Catalyst”, aimed at helping new agricultural technologies bridge the so called ‘valley of death’ between the lab and the marketplace. The Catalyst focuses particularly on small and medium sized enterprises.

This kind of increased investment is particularly important in an industry where the ground is continually shifting, both metaphorically and literally. Climate change is heightening the weather risks that farmers already face, opening new doors while closing others (arguably more so for Canada than for other countries). More than ever, farmers need to be able to adapt and seize opportunities as they arise. Governments have an interest in seeing that this is done, not just for national economic gain, but also in the interests of domestic and global stability.

Food shortages – or, more precisely, difficulties in supplying adequate food to people at an acceptable price - are notoriously destabilizing (witness the rioting that took place in various countries in the wake of steep food price hikes in 2007-2008). Another critical flash point for stability is water – issues with availability and access create enormous challenges for governance. Irrigation for agriculture is responsible for about 70% of the world’s water withdrawals. Every effort needs to be made to reduce this figure and free up water for sustainable drinking and domestic use. This can be done both by sending the right price signals (water for irrigation is often almost free) and by developing better irrigation technology.

Canada is a global agricultural powerhouse, though you would be forgiven for missing that fact. Despite being one of the world’s of top three wheat exporters, agriculture rarely features in policy conversations about our country’s future. The debates are dominated by how we should or should not exploit our non-renewable resources. At the consumer level, Canadians see relatively little evidence of food innovation at the supermarket unlike in the UK, where food traceability has become very important (so individual products at the supermarket are labeled with farm of origin) and new food products appear on shelves regularly.

We certainly have globally-respected agricultural institutions, especially in the cluster around Guelph, but most Canadians know little about what they do. We are a G7 country with a 400 hectare farm smack in the middle of our capital city. That is the perfect platform for raising the profile of agriculture – and agricultural innovation in particular. We should step up and use it to figure out how best to leverage Canada’s natural advantages in this field to our and the global community’s long-term benefit.