As Presented to Canadian Deputy Ministers of Agriculture

On January 23rd I had an opportunity to present my thoughts on opportunities and challenges facing Canadian Agriculture to ALL the Deputy Ministers of Agriculture.

I am not sure how I was chosen for this honour, however, I felt obliged to do a good job.

Here are the issues I chose to present.

BTW…no one can be an expert in all these areas, so I reached out to many people to get clarity.  I really did my best…I hope it helps.

The first thing I conveyed was the rapid pace of change in our sector is because, in my view, agriculture has entered the era of Agriculture 5.0, a time of convergence of technologies where synthetic biology, sensors, data streams, precision agriculture, robotics and  artificial intelligence will transform our industry like never before.

Farmers move at the “speed of business” and it is a struggle for government to keep up.  As government lags, so will our industry.  If Canada is to be a world leader, we must ask its agriculture ministries to be leaders as well.

  1. Private insurance / AgriStability

Of a ~$29.00/ac crop insurance coverage, the Fed/Prov covers about $20-22/ac.  If a farmer opts for private coverage, he/she takes that burden off the government’s hands, reduces administration and liability; a net benefit for taxpayers.  If we want to encourage more private insurance systems to develop, consider providing those farmers who opt of government programs out with a voucher (say $10-14/ac) or credit so they can pursue private insurance in a more competitive manner.

2. Transportation

Oil on rail will displace grain and commodities like potash. No matter what assurances we are given, THIS WILL HAPPEN.

If we cannot deliver we will be viewed as untrustworthy.  If we cannot be trusted to deliver we will lose customers and that is something our agriculture sector can ill afford.

The pipeline issue is not an oil issue…it is a Canadian issue and will hit farmers and their customers hard when we cannot deliver on time.

3. Seed Regulations

Lack of clarity surrounding ROI for seed breeders is hurting our industry.

Open pollinated crops like wheat, barley, oats, and pulses are not keeping up to corn, soybeans and canola advancements.

Some farmers are adamant they want to save and seed bin run seed.  The breeders/seed developers say they need a better return to invest in the sector.  We have lost a significant player who was looking at developing hybrid wheat; that is gone for now.

The seed sector needs a system that provides value, choice and transparency.  The Ag Ministries must wrestle this issue to conclusion that will move us forward.

4. Public Outreach

Mobilize your Agriculture Ministries to speak out about agriculture science.  Educate!

I asked “How many employees of the ministries of agriculture hold anti-GMO beliefs?” – this is an issue.

I called for cross ministry collaboration; agriculture x health x environment x education.

Support initiatives like the Canadian Center for Food Integrity, Ag in the Classroom; and Know Ideas Media (disclosure, my son, Nick Saik runs this site).

5. Activist Attack on Agriculture

There are many outside forces hell bent on painting agriculture and farmers as somehow evil.  There is activist and anti-science movements on GMO, Pesticides, Green House Gases and Livestock that is mostly not tied to science that is designed to create FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt) about modern farming practices.

The FUD leads to panic polices that are turning into politic rather than science-based decisions.

I called on CFIA to fight deceptive labelling such as non-GMO Spinach or non-GMO Maple Syrup or non-GMO Himalayan Rock Salt.

6. Pressure on Tools

GMO – I urged Canada to stay the course on novel trait assessment and registration.  This is one of the most commons sense approaches in the world.  Canada should be proud of this system and we should educate consumers that just because a product is bred using RNAi technology it is just as safe as something bred through mutagenesis.

Example: Non-browning Arctic Apples derived through gene silencing is an excellent example of how we can reduce food waste through genetic engineering.

Neonicotnoids – Is the pressure to ban this product routed in deep science or cherry picked science?  Are we capitulating to activist pressures?  Are ALL treatment methods the same and should we be painting corn seed treatment the same as canola seed treatment?  AND, if banned what will farmers use instead and will these alternatives be better or worse for the environment?  What about RISK/BENEFIT analysis?

If we lose seed treatment tools and have to go back to indiscriminate spraying of foliar insecticide are the beneficial insects going to be better or worse off?

Glyphosate – I applauded the Health Canada review on glyphosate following the 2015 re-registration of glyphosate use in Canada.  Now the agriculture ministries need to educate their staff and get the word out on this issue.

7. Canadian Agriculture is ANNUALLY 30 Million Metric Tonnes to the GOOD Carbon!

(Thanks to Dauphin Farmer and Engineer Fraser MacPhee on helping me with this one.)

Carbon tax will be punitive to farmers.  They live far from town. Drive more.  Use fertilizer.  Use diesel to farm. Have to truck their grain to elevators. And they are being told that livestock emits +14% of world GHG emissions (when the real number is closer to 3.3%).

Canada’s climate data says our Agriculture sector emits 60 Mt CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) annually (includes loss from soil, manure and cow burps – Enteric Fermentaion).

We store 11 Mt CO2e annually in the soil (FYI 1% increase in OM = 20 Mt CO2e).

Yet no-where is the 79 Mt CO2e as carbon stored annually in the grain we produce taken into account.

Why not?

With the carbon stored in grain; our agriculture sector is 30 Million Metric Tonnes to the GOOD re GHG (green house gas) balance EVERY YEAR! 

Why doesn’t everyone know about this?  Are the agriculture ministries educating and defending this position?

8. Connectivity

Imagine running a $10M business in Toronto WITHOUT the internet.

Or, being told you should go to Mississauga to access the internet at the local library!

Yet, this is the situation with many farms today.  Many are operating $5M, $10, $20M businesses with little or poor internet or cellular coverage.

52% of farmers are dis-satisfied or very dis-satisfied with their internet access while 45% say the same of cellular coverage.

While not an agriculture ministry issue per se, this constraint affects the implementation of sensory, data, precision ag and robot technology at farm level.

To have “Smart Farms” we must have “Connected Farms”…in some areas THIS is the #1 constraint holding farmers back from adopting new, more efficient technology.

9. Technology Adoption

The number 1 reason (besides connectivity) farmers are not adopting technology at a faster rate is… there are not enough people to help support the tech and make it work.  Every year millions and millions of acres of yield data are left stranded on combine monitors because their is a lack of “Systems Integrators” to pull out the data and make it work.

Today’s tech is still not simple.  Just as once we were covered in hydraulic oil while trying to connect Pioneer, Case and John Deere couplings from implements to tractors; we are now covered in “digital hydraulic oil” because most of the data do not flow easily from system to system or colour to colour.

We MUST create new high tech agriculture curriculum.  This need must be recognized by the Advance Education Ministries and built into the post-secondary ecosystem.  Agriculture Ministries need to fight for this to happen.

10. Regulation Regarding Autonomous Robots

(Note: I am biased here as this topic is related to my role as CEO, of DOT Ready Retail).

People are applauding self driving cars.  We know self-driving trucks are coming.  We need to make way for autonomous robotic field machines.

We know that with GPS guidance such as RTK and RTX we can guide machines in the field to sub inch accuracy.

You think we could move a robot on an road between fields at 8-12 mph safely? Yet, are facing rules and legislation in most jurisdictions that would force farmers to load their robot onto a trailer to move between field rather than allow for “follow-me” or self movement.

If we are going to adopt autonomous robotic farming in broad acre agriculture we need to be able to efficiently move the equipment.  We need the ag ministries to work to make this a reality.

Conclusion:

Agriculture is the most complicated business I know of because so many biotic, abiotic and market factors are out of the control of the farmer and the system.

We are must embrace technology and advance our farming practices to ensure that agriculture is “infinitely sustainable” and can feed the growing population.

Canada is one of a handful of countries capable of producing more food than it consumes.  Our farmers are some of the best in the world at crop and livestock production in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.

To advance, we need the ministries of agriculture AHEAD of us…clearing the path – enabling farmers with technology – beating the drum of science with consumers and ensuring the government is a partner not an impediment to the future.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert D. Saik, PAg, CAC

Professional Agrologist, Certified Agriculture Consultant

Rob@RobertSAIK.com