Agri Innovation Forum: a crowd scarcely imaginable 10 years ago – or in 1994

For the past couple of days I’ve been covering the Agri Innovation Forum.

It’s a gathering of hopeful entrepreneurs, venture capital operators and university/government/farmer organization people hoping to see the agriculture industry develop further into the value-added area. It’s a venue filled with unbounded optimism and an assumption that agriculture-based innovations can and almost certainly will be the answer to many of the future’s and today’s greatest challenges.

Right now, that hardly seems an odd attitude for people to have. It seems natural and automatic that crop-based products will play a bigger and bigger role in the world economy and actually become the leading edge of research and development. At this conference entrepreneurs pitched the VenCap people on investing in crop-based companies that produce biofuels, provide environmentally friendly packaging, promote human health – and that was just the basic stuff we’re already used to. The more radically innovative stuff is beyond my ability to simply describe here.

No one seemed to challenge the notion that agriculture-based products could be used in all sorts of industrial and consumer fields. It’s just a given these days.

I’m not going to challenge that idea either, because I suspect that biological mechanisms are going to be harnessed to produce the next great leap forward in scientific, economic, social and global evolution that we are probably already in the early stages of. I think we’ll look back in 50 years (I plan to be alive then, thanks to continued biological-medical development that will keep me going that long) on this early era of biotech and laugh at its limitations, its small scope, at the silly hysterics about genetic modification that were provoked “back in the day.” Agriculture – the harnessing of living biological systems by humans to produce useful things – will probably be assumed by everyone in the future to be the natural place to look for innovation and development. What we’re doing today will seem like caveman science.

I’m noting all this, which probably doesn’t seem that radical, because last week I passed my 19th anniversary of becoming a Western Producer reporter, and none of the optimistic sentiments I wrote about above would have seemed automatic way back then. In 1994 farmers and Prairie agriculture were having another crappy year, after more than a decade of crappy years since the end of the good times in ag in the early 1980s. Farmers generally seemed to be losing money, and stories of failure, desperation, never-getting-ahead, hanging-on, and other dire situations were common in farm country. Crop farmers were scrambling to find any way to remain viable in those days and nothing seemed to help. People talked about a “cheap food policy” conspiracy, we had what we called a “farm income crisis,” we worried perennially about the shrinking and dying towns and villages of rural Western Canada. Generally, farming seemed to be a loser in the modern economy, a hanger-on from the primitive past.

As always there were innovations and many bright farmers working to allow Prairie farmers to stay slightly ahead of failure in the competitive world market. Government, university and private researchers kept creating new, hardier and better yielding varieties of crops like canola, giving farmers an edge in a low-margin world. The first biotech innovations to become large scale, like Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant canola, got into farmer’s hands. Farmers endlessly promoted ethanol as a way of eating up the glut of grains that always killed the chances for good prices.

But while farmers always seemed to remain hopeful and convinced about the golden potential of agriculture to be more than a loser, “old economy” sector, it was hard to convince anyone else. I can’t imagine a group like there is today at the Fort Garry Hotel at the Agri Innovation Forum – a roomful of eager international venture capital people with millions of dollars to invest – flocking to any agriculture-related event 10 years ago, let alone 19 years ago. I’ve covered hundreds of ag conferences, and before the post-2006 boom you just wouldn’t have found many Wall Street investor types in a Winnipeg meeting hall talking about the golden potential of crop-based products.

Recently I’ve found it quite depressing to cover the increasingly dire outlook for crop prices as the world adjusts to much healthier supplies of most crops, and predictions by most analysts that things will more likely get worse than get better for the next few years, so all the bubbly optimism at the Agri Innovation Forum was a pleasing antidote to the drear.

These folks could all be wrong about ag’s golden potential. Perhaps, the cynic in me wonders, the fact that most of these people weren’t interested in ag when the boom began but are super-keen now suggests that their interest is, in fact, a lagging indicator of the ag commodity boom and more likely to signal its end rather than its beginning. But in these dark days of late-autumn I don’t want to believe that, so for now at least, I’ll allow the optimism of the Agri Innovation Forum to wash over me. For most of the 19 years I’ve been here, it hasn’t been typical, so I’m going to enjoy it and hope they’re all right.



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