Major companies get behind smart ag super cluster

The average Canadian might hold a romanticized view of agriculture in this country, but for a group of nearly 100 industry, academic, government folks, big data is key to the sector’s future.

The $250 million Smart Agri-Food Super Cluster (SASC) is one of nine industry-led projects, and one of two that focuses on agriculture, to be shortlisted for up to $950 million in federal innovation funding earmarked in last year’s budget.

The “super cluster” funding is promised for projects in certain sectors, including agriculture, that the Liberal government has flagged as industries that can help grow the Canadian economy, on the advice of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, chaired by McKinsey’s Dominic Barton.

The idea of SASC is to spur economic growth by capturing and using big data. If approved, it’s estimated the partnership could create 300,000 new jobs across Canada, according to analysis conducted by accounting firm MNP.

With the global population expected to balloon to nine billion people by 2050, Canadian farmers know they will need to produce more in order to meet demand — without access to additional farmland.

“Feeding the world is just going to get harder,” SASC’s ínterim chief executive officer Robert Davies told the more than 100 attendees at the cluster’s day-long workshop in Ottawa. The event was sponsored by the City of Ottawa, which is one of the nearly 100 backers of SASC.

Canada, Davies said, is only one of five countries in the world to be a net exporter of agricultural goods.

Seventeen educational institutions, including Olds College, the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, Lakeland College, Carleton University, and McGill University, are SASC supporters. The project is also backed by mega-companies including McDonald’s, General Mills, Telus, Microsoft and Cargill.

Four international non-governmental organizations alongside the National Research Council in Ottawa also support the project.

If approved, the SASC cluster would reopen a federal research farm located in Ottawa that’s owned by the National Capital Commission. The farm was first opened by then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (the current prime minister’s father) in the late 1960s. It was shuttered by the Brian Mulroney government and has sat unused since then.

The idea is to turn the property into a Big Data/Smart Technology research hub where new technologies, artificial intelligence and other innovate tools, such as drones, can be tested and studied.

Another two projects — one aimed at getting young women involved in agriculture and another designed to build gardens and greenhouses in indigenous communities — are ready to go, funding pending.

Agriculture is a “foundational industry,” said Mike Dittrich, TELUS’s director for smart agriculture.

Yet, despite rapid technological advancements and rising farmer interest, only half of Canadian farms are embracing Smart Agriculture technology – even as production and consumer demands rise.

Telus, he said, feels it has a “social responsibility” to help producers meet the looming demand for food. Everyone needs to eat, he said – adding more than 24,000 of the company’s customers are involved in agriculture.

The federal government isn’t the only group clueing in to the economic growth potential of Canada’s agriculture sector – despite the widening gap between the farm and people’s forks.

In the past four years, both Telus and Microsoft have actively prioritized investment and business decisions that target the farming and food sectors.

The goal, Microsoft’s John Weigelt said, is to work with the agriculture and food industries o in order make new technology as user-friendly, and cost-effective, as possible.

“Farmers don’t want to fiddle with computers,” he said. Most producers would prefer working their barns, fields or working with livestock, so “can we make it [on-farm technology] as easy as Lego blocks?”

“We know the technology that has been available has been somewhat complex, it’s been difficult to install, difficult to maintain and the raw connectivity that we’ve talked about hasn’t always been there,” Dittrich said, adding Telus is committed to working with farmers on future projects.

For its part, Microsoft has already developed FarmBeats, a program meant to help farmers use Big Data to improve crop yields.

Ottawa is expected to announce the five super cluster funding winners in the next few months.

In all, there are two agriculture proposals: SASC and the Protein Innovations Canada (PIC) Super cluster, which is based out of Saskatchewan and focuses on plant-based proteins.

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics,

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