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Agriculture conference tackles food security


‘The markets are there, commodities are good, but there are so many things holding them back from being able to take advantage of that’

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Never before has food security taken as much a spotlight in Canada.

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Coming out of a pandemic that caused rushes on certain items and kinks in food supply chains, the Canadian public has a greater understanding of where their food comes from and that it does not just show up magically in the store.

Now, with the conflict in Ukraine — which is threatening the availability of two of the world’s largest grain exporters — a global food security crisis is looming. At Cultivate: Agriculture Summit, hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, the ability of Canadian producers to meet the global demand in the short- and long-term was front and centre.

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“You have almost a perfect storm happening right now,” said Conservative MP John Barlow, agriculture, agri-foods and food security critic. “The markets are there, commodities are good, but there are so many things holding them back from being able to take advantage of that.”

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He pointed to a number of different impediments for local producers, including a carbon tax that is cranking up the price of running operations, their ability to get inputs like fertilizer and glyphosates, supply chain issues and a shortage of workers in the labour force.

Barlow noted a private member’s bill that has support of all parties outside of the Liberal party that would add fuels like propane and natural gas on farms to the exemption list. He said some of the farmers he has talked to faced a $12,000 bill in January for the carbon tax alone.

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The impacts of this looming shortage will not just be felt on the other side of the world, but will impact Canadians in their day-to-day life by their ability to get certain products at the store and the increasing price they will pay.

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Bob Lowe, the past president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and a panelist at the summit, said this could have drastic impacts on the cattle industry coming out of 2021’s drought which forced producers to source feed to get them through the winter.

“Grain is going to be in limited supply,” he said. “If we have a drought again next year and we couple that with what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia, where that grain is coming from I don’t know.”

Bob Lowe, past president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, right, and Ray Price, president of the Sunterra Group, speaks at Cultivate Agriculture Summit hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.
Bob Lowe, past president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, right, and Ray Price, president of the Sunterra Group, speaks at Cultivate Agriculture Summit hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Photo by Josh Aldrich/Postmedia

Much of the Canadian prairies did have an improved winter when it came to snowpack and precipitation which should help, though southern Alberta may have a tough growing season ahead.

Technology is playing a big role in the mitigation of the impacts of broken supply chains and extreme weather.

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Mark Thompson, executive vice president and chief strategy and sustainability officer at Nutrien, said the company has a focus on gene editing seeds to help farmers meet the growing demands locally and around the world.

He said this process is different from GMO seeds in that it modifies the existing structure of the plant to make it more resilient to abiotic stress or pests or increase and enhance yields.

“I think we’ve got a real opportunity here in Canada to use that as one of many technology tools to increase productivity over time,” said Thompson.

One of the big challenges in meeting that demand is making sure a workforce is trained and ready.

James Benkie, the dean of the Werklund School of Agriculture Technology at Olds College, said there is a shortage of more than 100,000 workers in the primary ag sector across Canada, but it grows to more than 300,000 in the agri-foods sector.

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The hurdle the industry faces is changing the discussion about what the sector is and to move away from old stereotypes. The agriculture sector is thriving on cutting edge technology in every facet, bringing together science, business and innovation.

“It is an opportunity for people from outside the industry to come and apply knowledge, come and apply experience to help solve some of the greatest challenges in producing food,” he said.

The one-day summit at the Big Four Building on the Calgary Stampede grounds brought together 300 people from across all sectors including business, finance, students and politics among many more.

It was the first time in two years the Chamber has been able to host the event due to the pandemic.

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Ruhee Ismail-Teja, director of policy and communications at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said it was important to be able to put the event on this year and to build the connection between rural and urban Alberta to meet these bigger issues.

“We’ve see agriculture become a lot more important and we’ve seen agri-food become even more important in the last little bit, particularly related to food security,” she said. “That’s risen to the forefront both through COVID-19 and empty shelves and people realizing food security did matter to their day-to-day lives, and more recently with the Russia-Ukraine conflict and realizing Canada has an important role and responsibility to ensure people around the world get fed.”

jaldrich@postmedia.com

Twitter: @JoshAldrich03

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