The future of agricultural food production in Canada

It's food that weaves the economic prosperity of a nation

farmer with bales in a field

With the Canadian economy in complete disarray and a desperately low national GDP, governments are struggling to spur a little action. As the election looms and promises are made, even the retraction of interest rates seems an unlikely motivator.

Agriculture has long been lost in the discussion of booming economies. Big oil and big metals dominated forecasts for decades without any central focus on food. But the rest of the world sees us differently. Considered one of the great breadbaskets on the globe, the Middle Eastern and Asian nations speak of Canada in the appreciative tone of a food artery. So important is access to Canada’s land, commodities, water and ports that investment is seen as a sure return. In North America last year investors in farmland who were outside of agriculture enjoyed a 12 per cent ROI. It seems that land, food and food processing is where the future is.

This comes as no surprise if we consider that in Canada the manufacturing of food is the largest employer and leader of GDP, even over auto manufacturing. One in eight Canadian jobs is in agriculture or agri-food. In meat manufacturing processing dominates the West and in total employs nearly 65,000 people, yet the overall western contribution to agri-food processing does not equate to a portion of the eastern portfolio.

Although Canada is seen as lagging from a global perspective in agricultural output and shares an aging population with the rest of the developed world — this is changing. New data suggests nearly 35,000 new farmers are contributing to agriculture and that over half of farms have the younger generation lined up to take over. This positive news sparks an exciting chapter in the production of food.

In Canada, annual sales in farmers’ markets are over $1 billion. Many new farms are starting small and selling direct as they tap into the consumer desire for fresh and local foods. More than three-quarters of the value added in food is from small and medium enterprises, often driven by farmer innovation. When it comes to farm products, young producers are keen on forward contracts to secondary industries and food manufacturers. They understand the value of stretching out in the ag arena to develop their own markets, are educated and use social media extensively.

Telling the story of food is just as important as the production of it. It is also a way to get into the kitchens of Canadian voters and influence their perception of food production and food economics. The reality is that although we tend to focus on those products that seem infinite, such as a hubcap, it is the finite carrot that has been the foundational piece in the development of society. Every civilization has been built around the need for access to food and water and with urbanization settling nearly 80 per cent of all global populations, including Canada’s, within 60 kilometres of port or shore, we are challenging our country to continue to produce and deliver food for all.

Over 6,000 food manufacturers provide food to Canadians and consumers in 190 other countries. Food policy in Canada may over time shift from agriculture policy to social policy but our role as producers and processors in the meantime is to ensure there is a pathway for entrepreneurship, a focus on infrastructure for all products and an appreciation of food as the leading contributor to manufacturing GDP in the nation.

Locking down resources for future farmers is foundational but encouraging that creative spirit is essential. Removing barriers to the development of a national policy protecting Canadian food would let creative minds know that what they dream can be. Restoring research and technology on the front of a national initiative will further drive innovators to the farm.

There is room for every farmer and the farm of the future may look different. It may be owned and operated by immigrants, sport value-add facilities on site, have state-of-the-art international market transactions taking place for commodities or foods or handling flocks of consumers buying organic or local food at the farm stand. It does not matter. It all tastes good and it all contributes to the economic stability of the nation.

As the ancient proverb says, “we have more than enough,” and Canada’s ability to succeed as a world superpower in food is only limited by her commitment to it. If there is one thing that may unite a nation, it is food. Just ask those who are without it. It takes four days to anger a hungry man and 10 days to starve a city when the transport is cut off. Protecting access to raw and value-added food and beverage products for Canadians and our export clients only makes sense, especially when food is a chief economic driver of the nation.

Putting agriculture back on the balance sheet will only happen when every industry becomes strong advocates for the whole business of food. Our future success does not lie in division or condemnation. It does not lie in the narrow channelling of production or processing to benefit one sector over the other. It lives when we look at the entire economic picture — knowing that it is food that weaves the economic prosperity of a nation.

This article was originally entitled as, “Food floats our boat” in the April 2015 issue of Canadian Cattlemen.

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