Last year’s Barton panel report on the agri-food sector continues to resonate with additional consultation and analysis of its recommended policies and actions aimed at sustainably boosting exports to $75 billion by 2025.
The Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute (CAPI) launched a series of workshops to determine what specific actions are required to achieve the sector’s export objectives with a subsequent report – Barton Forward: Optimizing Growth in the Canadian Agri-Food Sector – posing and answering four key questions:
The report’s response to those questions is largely positive within the related but key objectives of retaining the nation’s natural capital, improving the health of Canadians, and preserving public trust.
“We’re never going to win a race to the bottom so … let’s make this a race to the top,” says Ted Bilyea, a special advisor to CAPI, president of Ted Bilyea & Associates Inc and a former executive at Maple Leaf Foods Inc. “The markets are there for high quality, healthy and sustainable foods. There’s a one-billion Asian middle class with huge growth potential.”
CAPI’s work builds on the Advisory Council on Economic Growth’s (ACEG) report on the agriculture and agri-food sector led by McKinsey and Co’s global managing partner emeritus, Dominic Barton. In its initial report, the ACEG singled out agriculture and agri-food as one of six priority sectors in Canada with “a strong endowment, untapped potential and significant global growth prospects”, similar to initiatives in US, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. It then zeroed in on the sector with a sector-specific report.
CAPI has already responded to the Barton agriculture and agri-food report by partnering with the Public Policy Forum to organize eight roundtables that provided feedback on the strategy. Yet the Ottawa-based think tank contends that there remained several “unexamined questions (that) required further exploration.”
The report notes, for instance, that science and innovation’s ability to help meet growth targets is constrained by several factors such as skills shortages, lack of an entrepreneurial/risk-taking culture, low business R&D investment, underfunded regulatory agencies and disruption such innovations pose for industry. For each challenge, however, it offers solutions plus an assessment of the risks and trade-offs involved.
“We’re seeking more government interaction with industry to drive this forward – more public private partnership type stuff,” says Bilyea. “We have balance of trade only on the commodity side but not on the processed side which is largely imported. We need a coordinated, whole-of-government approach. Innovation needs to evolve as well as science and technology … I’m pretty sure government is starting to get there but it’s not easy. Departments operate as silos but all have mandate letters and they are now public. The Privy Council Office’s departmental divisions are also seen as the problem and government is in the early stages of understanding this.”
Bilyea points to several Canadian value-add success stories as examples of how Canada can innovate and capture niche global markets.
Bilyea also cites the Protein Industry Supercluster (PIS) program funded under the Innovation Superclusters Initiative as an example of how collaborative partnerships can work with the combined financial support of industry, government and other affiliated players. PIS backers say they will utilize “plant genomics and novel processing technology to increase the value of key Canadian crops, such as canola, wheat and pulses”, generating at least $4.5 billion in GDP and 4,500 jobs over a 10-year period.
“This is extremely important and a good example of public private partnership … A lot of eyes are on this to make sure it works,” says Bilyea. “Success will be measured by the quality of growth it can provide, not just making the numbers.”
Bilyea is equally enthusiastic about the Economic Strategy Tables (EST) program – another federal initiative in which agriculture figures prominently. In its February/18 interim report, the agri-food table presented five themes which it asserts are critical for future agricultural and agri-food success in the global marketplace:
While Bilyea says the themes correspond to the findings of its work on the sector, there’s more work to be done.
“CAPI brings to the table what the agri-food Economic Strategy Table is seeking … Their priority themes focus on value-add and seizing opportunities but all these things require lots of work with government, as well as money and time. The (EST) themes lack the context and CAPI is providing this with our report … Value-add relies on how you do things and transparency.”
Bilyea points to moves by his former employer – Maple Leafs Foods – as an example of how Canadian food processing companies can successfully address both global markets and the environmental and health concerns of Canadians. The Toronto-based firm recently revamped its processed food offerings, eliminating additives, using natural ingredients and issuing a “food manifesto” – To Be the Most Sustainable Protein Company on Earth - “with advancements in animal care, health and safety, food security and long-term environmental sustainability”.
“Maple Leaf is a good omen for Canada in general. We still have a relatively clean environment and we are willing to be more transparent in what we do,” says Bilyea. ”The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is trusted (and) that has brought us tremendous value globally.”
The CAPI report notes that both the 2017 and 2018 federal Budgets announced major investments in R&D in academia and government, company scale-up, money for soil, air and water conservation and funding for a re-imagined National Research Council. By capitalizing on innate Canadian strengths, the report says the Barton report and follow-on consultation represents a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“Canada has a bio capacity surplus which places us in a unique position,” says Bilyea. “Barton only looked at this superficially but we aim to ensure we can continue to produce crops in a relatively sustainable manner.”