An ICTC Study
Canadian Agri-Food Technology
Sowing the Seeds for Tomorrow
Published by ICTC, November 2021
A sustainable, competitive food and agriculture system is foundational to resilient economic growth. The UN’s sustainable development goals make clear that food is tied to almost everything we do, including reducing inequality, achieving good health and well-being, responsible food consumption and production, building sustainable communities, and protecting the environment. While estimates vary, food and agriculture production accounts for approximately 21% to 37% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 70% of freshwater use, and more than 50% of the world’s habitable land, making agriculture a key pillar in efforts related to climate change, conservation, and biodiversity. Meanwhile, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. With population growth comes greater demand for agri-food products, therefore the global food and agriculture sector will need to produce more while reducing its environmental footprint.
Importantly, the relationship between the agri-food sector, climate change, and conservation is cyclical. The health of the global food system is intimately tied to health of the planet, as food systems rely on predictable climates, stable weather patterns, clean water, and fertile soil. Therefore agri-food not only impacts climate change and environmental degradation but is also impacted by these trends. Rising temperatures and sea levels, new precipitation patterns, and greater risk of more intense droughts, heatwaves, and natural disasters are all associated with climate change and present a significant threat to food security. Food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Food insecurity is therefore the absence of this state. Conflict, economic slowdowns, low productivity, and inefficient supply chains further impact food security by increasing the relative cost of food. For example, in 2020, amid pandemic-induced economic downturns, “the increase in the number of undernourished [people] was more than five times greater than the highest increase in undernourishment in the last two decades.”
In addition to climate change and population growth, Canada’s agri-food sector faces “intense competitive pressures in global and domestic markets.” Global markets increasingly demand higher quality, more secure data about food safety, including a heightened interest in food traceability across the agri-food supply chain. Governments and consumers increasingly want sustainable agri-food products like alternative proteins that meet key environmental indicators (e.g., CO2 output and water, energy, and land use). People are learning how to grow food in new ways in urban environments, making use of vertical farms, greenhouses, and community plots. Simultaneously, there is growing interest in how to reduce food waste by keeping food fresh, longer, and using food waste as new inputs for the circular economy. Technology has a fascinating role to play in many of these market trends, but to meet these opportunities, Canada will need to prioritize agri-food innovation and digitization.
Interviewees in this study highlighted the role of precision-agriculture technologies in producing food more efficiently and more sustainably; controlled environmental agriculture, such as greenhouses and vertical farming; biotechnology; and high-tech food processing in Canada’s alternative proteins market. In terms of technology adoption, however, this study finds that while older technologies often see high rates of adoption in Canada, adoption rates for emergent technologies are often low. Further, ICTC’s survey identified six key barriers preventing agri-food tech adoption: the cost of equipment and implementation, including maintenance and operation; access to high-speed internet; low return on investment; labour shortages; technical challenges related to interoperability; and the oversupply of technologies that is not very useful to farmers.
Focusing on labour shortages, ICTC estimates that demand in the agri-food technology industry will reach approximately 49,000 additional workers by Q4 of 2025.12 If filled, this will bring total employment in the industry to 683,000 workers by the end of 2025. In terms of specific roles, this study finds that, while numerous roles are relevant to agtech, certain roles are more in demand and harder to fill than others. The agri-food system has become higher tech, with traditional tech occupations showing up as the most in demand. These roles include firmware and hardware developers, software developers, mobile app developers, web full stack developers, front-end developers, back-end developers, data scientists, business analysts, and UI/UX designers, blockchain engineers, and machine learning experts. In addition, agtech companies require a variety of interdisciplinary competencies and skills: agriculture, horticulture, and biology, engineering skills, manufacturing skills, digital skills, robotics, and data analytics.
A need for continued innovation and technology adoption is critical to help address agricultural emergencies related to climate change, respond to global population growth and growing food demand, and food insecurity. As noted by Canada’s agri-food strategy council, Canada’s agri-food sector is well positioned for longer-term growth; however, to meet increased food demand, Canada will need to build a 21st century talent pipeline that places a particular emphasis on digital and business skills across the agriculture and food sector.
Researched and written by Maryna Ivus (Manager, Labour Market Research), Nathan Snider (Manager, Research & Stakeholder Engagement), Peter Taillon (Senior Data Scientist), Mairead Matthews (Senior Research and Policy Analyst), and Maya Watson (Research and Policy Analyst), with generous support from Arun Sharvirala (former Senior Data Scientist) and the ICTC Digital Think Tank team.