Canada should push to be ‘big data’ leader

With sufficient government funds and a sincere desire, Canada could become the global leader in big data agriculture, said Wade Barnes, president of Farmer’s Edge.

But if it’s going to happen, it needs to happen now, he said.

“You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to be the centre of ag tech,” Barnes said. “If Canada invests, I’m hoping it’s not too late, but if they move (quickly) it’s better to be the centre of excellence globally, here, than have it in Chicago or Silicon Valley.”

The federal government may be thinking the same thing. In early September, it announced $77 million in funding for Ontario’s University of Guelph “to start a digital revolution” in agriculture and food.

The massive amount of funding, the largest federal investment in U of G history, will go a research program called Food From Thought. The research is expected to focus on information management, analytics and computing power and how the technology can be harnessed to produce more food with fewer inputs. As well, it plans to look at growing food consumers will trust.

“This is an acknowledgment by the federal government that this is a big area of growth and innovation and is worthy of investment,” said Evan Fraser, Guelph geography professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security, “It’s an attempt to help the (agri-food) industry on its path to the use of big data in production and distribution.”

Over the last couple of years so called “big data” has been touted as the next big thing in agriculture, with multinational companies investing billions to acquire and create businesses with expertise in data and analytics. Monsanto and others hope to sell services to help farmers make better management decisions.

“Farmers… the most important element they’ve had on their farms is the decision-making process. They make 50 decisions a year (that are) high-stakes poker,” said Barnes, who founded Farmers Edge in 2005. “They make these decisions without a lot of (data). There’s a lot of gut instinct.”

As an example, a farmer might rely on past experience to choose a certain variety of crop. But data might indicate the variety isn’t suited for the soil type or management practices on that farm.

Fraser, his U of Guelph colleagues and Food From Thought industry partners are hoping the $77 million investment changes the game and pushes Canada forward.

“Hopefully we’ll be in a better position, in a few years, to provide the technologies and policies and insight to help make Canadian agriculture more competitive,” said Fraser, Food From Thought scientific director.

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