Home Month and Year June 2021 The Resilient Agri-food Sector

The Resilient Agri-food Sector

The positive momentum

Photo by Tomasz Filipek

Resilient perfectly describes Alberta’s agri-food sector!

In addition to the vital public health and safety factors, Alberta agriculture in 2020 has been broadsided by various complications. But it continues strong, strategic and focused.

“Canada is one of a handful of countries around the world that exports food,” says the knowledgeable Candace Laing, vice president of Sustainability & Stakeholder Relations with Nutrien, the world’s largest provider of crop inputs, services and solutions. “Our food systems have a positive reputation for being among the safest and most reliable on the planet. Agriculture and agri-food also play an important role in our economy, both on the national level and provincially.”

Scott Bolton, president and chief executive officer of UFA, the influential 120,000-member association of Alberta farmers, is gung-ho. “Our province and in particular the farmers and ranchers which our co-operative serves, are critical to our country’s economy. In addition to the primary and processed agricultural and food products, the agri-food industry also provides opportunities for manufacturing that supports thousands of high-quality jobs for Canadians.”

The specifics are impressive and underscore momentum.

“Alberta’s agri-food sector is an important part of the Alberta economy, contributing $9.2 billion in GDP and employing close to 70,000 Albertans,” explains Jamie Curran, assistant deputy minister of the Trade, Investment and Food Safety Division of Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. “Despite experiencing significant challenges due to COVID-19, Alberta’s agriculture and agri-food sector has been a bright spot in Alberta’s economy through the pandemic and will continue to be a big contributor to the province’s economic recovery. The agri-food industry in Alberta is export oriented and continues to be the third largest exporter of agri-food products in Canada (after Ontario and Saskatchewan). Agri-food products account for more than 21 per cent of all Canadian goods exported internationally.”

He highlights that despite last year’s broadsides, Alberta’s agri-food numbers not only reached a new industry high at $7.5 billion (up nearly eight per cent from 2019), but 2020 was also the second highest year on record for livestock market receipts. Curran adds that food and beverage processing also showed an upward trend as active contributors to Alberta’s economy, averaging $14.3 billion over the past five years (2015 – 2019).

“Albertans produced 32 per cent of Canadian wheat, 29 per cent of our canola, 48 per cent of our barley, 20 per cent of our oats and led the nation in cattle and calf inventory,” Laing itemizes with enthusiastic industry expertise. “One would think that given the economic impact, everyone now understands just how important farmers and agriculture are to our country.”

Alberta’s agri-food productivity, performance and outlook are positive.

Although COVID-19 has definitely taken a toll, the industry has effectively managed the unprecedented crisis. Laing looks back on the first COVID-19 surge as a learning lesson. “When the pandemic hit more than a year ago, many were woken-up to the reality of how fragile our food system is and how important food security is for society.”

Curran is also upbeat about the response of Alberta framers. “The agility and resilience demonstrated by the agri-food sector to quickly adapt to COVID-19 has been exceptional. As a result, the food supply chain has remained safe and secure. Alberta producers and processors have been innovative, flexible and dedicated in maintaining food safety and security during the pandemic.”

Even in normal times, it’s no secret that in some parts of the country, the vital role of agriculture is often taken for granted and somewhat misunderstood. Not that there are any silver linings about the pandemic, but its jarring social impact may have shaken things up a bit. “As we’ve witnessed this past year,” Bolton says, “there is a new appreciation when the grocery shelves are empty or the price of food goes up. The pandemic demonstrated the critical importance and integrity of Canada’s food supply system which not only feeds Canadians but people around the world.”

Even with the momentum of agri-food positives, the industry is dealing with some current speedbumps. “Labour continues to be a challenge for the agri-food sector,” Curran explains. “Last April we launched the Agriculture Jobs Connector, an online tool for Albertans to find essential agriculture work opportunities and for agriculture businesses to find workers. Since its launch, the site has been visited more than 30,000 times, directing people to the resources they need.”

Analysts and Ag insiders share a consensus that despite dealing with pandemic restrictions, regulations and lockdowns and other recent speedbumps, Alberta’s agri-food industry is dynamic and focused on the impact of technology, managing climate change with a commitment to sustainability and embracing innovation, like the emerging Ag trend of plant proteins.

“Agriculture is a unique and highly technical business made up of driven, well-educated entrepreneurs,” Curran adds. “And Alberta farmers have always been early adopters of new best practices and innovators in their field.”

Nutrien’s Candace Laing underscores the technology boon in the agri-food industry. “One of the most promising areas in the next frontier of agricultural innovation is the convergence of digital capabilities and science applied to agriculture and farming. Considering the huge number of critical decisions and activities a grower has to make on the farm throughout the season, we have come a long way over the past several years to centre our approach around enabling growers to digitize the farm and automate many of our operations through technology.”

Curran confirms that the plant-based protein industry is a focus of the provincial government and has been identified as an area of emerging opportunity. “As a major producer and exporter of pulses, cereal grains, canola, and hemp, Alberta is an attractive site for processing to help address the increasing North American and Asian market demands,” he says. “Over the past two years, the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program, which aims to enable growth and diversification of Alberta’s value-added industries, has committed more than $1.4 million in funding to support the plant-based protein industry.”

It’s more widely understood and accepted than ever before that with all it’s uniqueness, the agri-food industry is also a complex big business attracting investment funding and the upward trending commodity prices. “Crop prices have all risen since mid-August,” Curran points out. “Canola seed prices are up 60 per cent, feed barley and milling wheat prices are up 35 per cent, oat prices are up 30 per cent and yellow pea prices are up by 45 per cent. Demand for vegetable oil, meal, and feed grains is strong across the world, notably from China.

The business of agriculture trends and stats show that with the lowest (eight per cent) corporate tax rate in Canada, Alberta is now the most tax-competitive business jurisdiction and also acknowledged as one of the most attractive investment destinations in North America.

“Agriculture and Forestry has set a target to attract $1.4 billion over the next four years,” he says. “It will create more than 2,000 jobs and get Albertans back to work in emerging sectors like hemp, agri-technology and value-added processing of grain, oilseed, plant protein and meat.”

The numbers show that Alberta has already achieved more than $527 million in investment and created more than 981 new jobs.

“Especially given this past year, Albertans know now more than ever that agriculture will be key to economic recovery,” Bolton says. “Canada and the world depend heavily on the safe, high-quality agriculture and agri-food products that come from Alberta. The pandemic has really created new opportunities to examine any underlying issues within our industry, and to begin to address them in a positive and proactive manner.”