CEO, Agri-Food Innovation Council
Let’s face it — innovation was not a topic during the 2021 federal election. Neither was agri-food. Agri-food in Canada has strong innovative potential and is essential for solid economic recovery and growth.
The lack of focus on agri-food research and innovation is concerning. Canada has been a leader in the sector but the ship now seems rudderless. There’s no national strategy, no direction, and no sense of where we’re going beyond “let’s export more.”
We’re now 19th in agricultural production globally. Public investments in agri-food research and innovation steadily declined in Canada-based on an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report (and other reports as well).
We need to export more. In order for Canada’s agri-food sector to continue to meet the world market’s growing demand, innovation must be supported through science-based policy work and needs-specific funding.
Canada is well-positioned in the sector but is facing competition from other countries with cheaper production costs, fewer regulatory obstacles, and/or more adoption of innovation.
But to export more we need to innovate more and better facilitate the adoption of innovation.
The oft-quoted Barton report (2017) described agriculture and food as a sector that can lead in growth. It also mentions that “the government, in concert with the private sector, can take a targeted approach that would unleash the sector’s full potential.” We agreed and still do.
However, since then, some of the key suggestions from the report were not or not thoroughly implemented. The recommendation to have the government and the private sector work together toward bold growth objectives was not taken.
Another key recommendation, to have the government put in place an inter-governmental task force to “remove obstacles”, was also not put in place.
The Agri-Food Innovation Council is recommending the creation of a national strategy on agri-food research and innovation. Such a strategy would streamline our efforts, and provide a direction, a framework, coordination, and set goals for research and innovation in the sector.
It would need to be co-led by the federal government and industry and provide a key role to the provincial governments and academia. It would also be essential to ask representatives of Indigenous Peoples to participate fully and help lead the development of such a strategy.
The process to develop the national strategy shouldn’t be needlessly complicated. No one wants to see another major consultation effort. The consultation needs to happen but it can be innovative and nimble.
Care must be taken to ensure the strategy doesn’t become so convoluted that it becomes another forgotten effort to provide leadership to the sector. It can and should be a living document that supports the sector’s growth, enables cooperation, and delivers on results.
While politicians settle back in Ottawa following this last election and while the public service reopens its outreach to the sector, we must reawaken the conversation around the importance of the agri-food sector and the need for a national strategy should be a key priority for our sector.