Canada lags in research, ag innovation

Canada doesn’t hustle and put effort into marketing that some countries do, said participants at agri-food forum

OTTAWA — Lutz Goedde actually squirmed in his seat when he heard the question: is Canada a leader or a laggard in agriculture and agri-food innovation?


But Goedde, who spoke at a forum on Canada’s agri-food future in Ottawa in early November, didn’t evade the question.


“To be blunt … I do think Canada is more a laggard,” said Goedde, an agriculture and food economist with McKinsey & Company, a consulting company from the United States.


“You’re meeting the bar, but you’re not setting the pace. Countries like New Zealand, Ireland, the Netherlands … are doing with public/private partnerships, with research and so forth. I think Canada is behind…. You don’t show the same urgency and same commitment and same investment in the sector as some of those countries.”


Goedde was one of about two dozen speakers at the forum, which was hosted by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and Canada 2020, who shared thoughts on the country’s strategic options for the agri-food sector.


Al Mussell, an economist with Agri-Food Economic Systems in Guelph, Ont., said the laggard comment “stings” but it’s something that Canadians need to hear.


“We need to really think about that,” he said. “I suspect that there’s a marketing aspect to this. We don’t hustle the same way others do. There’s no data, it’s anecdotal … (but) we don’t put the kind of effort into (marketing) that other countries do.”


Amanda Lang, well-known business journalist, said self-promotion is a weakness in many sectors of Canada’s economy. It is particularly apparent in the agri-food industry, which is responsible for one in eight jobs in the country.


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Lang said industry leaders should collaborate on promotion and find a way to speak with one voice.


“I don’t know whether the top forces of this industry get together regularly … but that would be one place to start,” she said. 


“Have your voice. Know how important you are.”


Many speakers at the conference said promotion is essential, but it has to be supported with substance.


Selling Canada as the most trusted food system in the world or a source of safe and sustainable food will require investment and a long-term commitment to systems and infrastructure that support those ideals.


Money and resources are usually helpful, but a shift in values is also essential for agri-food innovation.


Presenters at the Ottawa forum often used the word “authentic,” meaning industry players must believe in how they are producing food.


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Colleen Dyck, a farmer from southeastern Manitoba and president of the Great Gorp Project, a granola bar company, said authenticity means “putting a stake in the ground” and living your company’s values.


“The customers that I’m dealing with, they’re educated, they’re picky. They want the best. They can smell a fraud a mile away.”


Rene Van Acker, University of Guelph professor, was impressed by Dyck’s insight.


“She said we sell the reason we make the product. That was like a lightning bolt in my forehead…. That is real wisdom.”


However, Van Acker isn’t convinced Canada should pursue a brand of most trusted food system in the world.


The more important objective is to expand the agriculture and food economy in Canada. 


“In Ontario we benefitted tremendously from (premier) Kathleen Wynne coming out and saying, ‘I’m going to put a challenge to the agriculture and food sector to grow 120,000 jobs by 2020,’ ” he said. 


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“It focused people, it got people down to … growing jobs and the economy. And it also got the farm organizations to think about job growth, which they don’t typically do.”