A tale of two sectors: connecting social licenses of growing and operating

Opinion

First there was precision ag.
Then came decision ag.
Now there is “smart ag”.

All are umbrella terms to describe a variety of fundamental changes in the way we do agriculture. All turn in some fashion on doing things better when it comes to producing crops or raising livestock. It’s all about maximizing yield while minimizing costs and (environmental) impact across a variety of farming dimensions.

All three are about everything from predictive analytics and digital technologies to soil management and crop protection strategies – and a bunch of stuff in between. Autonomous tractors. Biofertilizers. Variable rate inputs (seed, nutrients etc.) application. Remote sensing. Biomass calculations. The list goes on.

Smart ag is emerging as the more-encompassing notion; one that started in the technical realm but now includes the ethical and environmental, along the entire farm-to-fork value chain. It’s a movement rapidly gaining attention from everyone from venture capitalists and transnational agribusiness players to governments and environmental groups.

The point of smart ag, as messy and complex as such movements often are in their nascency, is that it points to a positive (and sustainable) future.

In a Canadian context, smart ag is often linked to Canada’s role and responsibilities in feeding a hungry planet, in which population growth is outstripping the world’s capacity to fill that demand. Canada is seen as a key linchpin in the global nexus of the small handful countries capable of producing vastly more food than they consume. Indeed, guidance recently given to the federal finance minister and cabinet about re-imagining Canada’s agfood sector underscores the upside opportunities for the entire sector – to say nothing of the country’s GDP.

That is also supported by the notion that smart ag is good (and big) business. A recent report estimated the global smart ag market to be worth $40 billion by 2026 in terms of economic impact. That’s everything from the high-tech space to the physical inputs into the field.

For the average person who typically puts fork to mouth without a lot of thought as to the food’s journey from the field, the reality that farmers (and their partners in the processing and transportation chain) are under a tremendous variety of pressures to get food right isn’t front and centre of their consciousness. Just like it isn’t when they pull up to the pumps.

In many ways, farmers face the same challenges as the energy sector’s social licence to operate. In agriculture, it can be increasingly described as the social licence to grow.

This disconnect between ag and petroleum’s production modes and their downstream consumption dynamics mean the two sectors share a common conundrum: how to more effectively communicate and engage with publics generally ignorant of what’s involved in getting gas into the tank or food onto the table. Most folks understand, at some latent level of consciousness, that farm and energy producers exist because they, as consumers, exist. But their ignorance, complacency and disinterest have always been confounding.

Now, the societal demands for better performance from both sectors are clamorous and socially deafening. Smart ag is not just uni-dimensional. It also has many variations on the theme, including Climate Smart Agriculture which examines the role agriculture plays in climate change and GHG emissions reductions. Smart ag, however, holds much promise as a platform for better (read more rationale) engagement with folks who ought to know better (those of us who eat). It is a concept that helps create binding harmony among the diverse (and often) disparate voices in the food and field space.

It’s a little puzzling, then, why the oil and gas sector hasn’t created its own version of smart ag. Smart ag is just not about doing things better in the field, so to speak, but it also focuses on helping heighten the public’s consciousness about how food is produced and why rationale dialogue about tough choices is critical.

In a word, what the ag sector gets is what is at risk: trust. And it’s trying to constructively tackle the trust challenge. The oil and gas sector also gets that social trust is one of its biggest challenges. It just hasn’t figured out how to constructively tackle trust.

That’s why it makes sense to start moving assertively to link the two sectors in an effort in the trust sphere.

In many ways, agriculture and energy are joined at the hip by this acronym AWL: air, water and land.

Here’s an example: the United States Department of Agriculture just released a report that explores the relationship between the American diet and carbon dioxide production. In the US in 2012, 13 per cent of emissions production can be linked back to how Americans eat (through the production/processing/transportation and logistics value chain.)

Diet and emissions. What a combination for two sectors to talk more constructively together.

For a start, the upstream petroleum sector might do well to study smart ag as an outreach concept. The key to the smart ag movement is the strong signals it sends about dynamic change across diverse players in the ag space: better farming and ranching techniques make for better everything from food safety and quality to the environment and climate.

The oil and gas sector is making parallel moves but hasn’t displayed the same creativity in terms of creating the critical mass that comes from coalescing around a central theme.

Smart ag is not perfect. It’s still in many ways figuring itself out. But it’s gaining momentum in some significant ways in the right direction, with the right constituencies.

To the degree our upstream oil and gas sector needs to get its communicative and trust act together around the great stories we have to tell, watching the ag sector may be time well spent.

Canadians need to be as connected to a smart-energy movement as they are to smart ag.

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(The author is President & CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group and EVP of Weather INnovations (WIN), a leading Canadian research and consulting company serving the Canadian and global agriculture sectors.)

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