Strengthening Canada’s competitiveness in global food production could drive economic growth for decades to come and deliver broad societal benefits. Now is the time to make it happen.

By Lee-Anne Goodman

On Thursday, April 20, 2017, Canadian agri-foods leaders convened at a breakfast symposium hosted by the PPF to discuss how to strengthen competitiveness and leverage the sector’s full potential.

Canada could become an international powerhouse in agri-food by tapping into an exploding global middle class and boosting exports by $30 billion over the next several years — but action is needed to seize the day, a Public Policy Forum symposium has been told.

“Are we going to do anything about it? What are we going to do to capture it?” Dominic Barton, the chairman of the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, told the gathering.

“We are very determined that we do something and capture the opportunity.”

Barton, managing partner of global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, recently provided Ottawa with a report calling for a growth strategy for agri-food, defined as everything from “field to fork.”

The report says the sector could generate another US$30 billion in exports — the equivalent to nearly two per cent of the GDP — over the next five to 10 years and in doing so become a trusted international industry leader.

Video: Watch the whole session

On Thursday, the Public Policy Forum (PPF) and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, known as CAPI, released their own report. It’s a summary of roundtable discussions held earlier this year with more than 150 agri-food stakeholders from across the country.

The report builds on Barton’s findings, and both reports are calling for agri-food — identified as one of Canada’s key-growth industries in the recent federal budget — to become a national economic priority.

Among more detailed agri-food recommendations outlined by Barton at Thursday’s breakfast symposium: a major infrastructure investment in ports and cities via the government’s newly formed infrastructure bank, a focus on innovation, an increase in workforce participation and a boost in immigration — in particular, the low-skilled temporary foreign workers who will take the jobs at agri-food outfits like abbatoirs and mushroom farms that are difficult to fill domestically.

Dominic Barton, chair of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, urged participants to recognize that agriculture is “a hotbed for high-tech innovation” and that as Canadians, we’d better recognize what we’ve got.

He noted free-trade agreements — not just with the increasingly protectionist United States but especially with China, India and Japan — are critical, but added that Canada has to sell its brand, not just its raw materials.

“Free-trade agreements are important, (but) if we’re not careful, we’ll just be commodity providers,” Barton said.

“But when you have a brand and products that are actually recognized and a consumer that wants them, that can blow through the barriers.”

In a panel discussion, industry leaders noted that food companies are a key to succcess, and the driving force for innovation because they’re at the consumer end of the agri-food sector.

Although the council has recommended creating a hub connecting all the parts of the sector, the panelists said the industry remains “silo-ed” — there’s not enough communication among the various sub-sectors and all levels of government.

“Government needs to talk to one another more,” said Carla Ventin, Vice President of Food and Consumer Products Canada.

The PPF and CAPI’s interim summary report also called for credible data, good metrics and shared information systems — among all levels of government — to ensure progress.

Gwen Paddock, senior director of agriculture and resource industries for the Royal Bank of Canada, said she hopes the council’s report will lead to a real focus with real accountability and deliverables upon which action should be taken.

The efforts will require continued private sector involvement, Barton said, and Canada’s provinces and territories must be heavily involved.

The advisory council looked at countries that included Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands, all nations that have had big successes in growing their food exports.

Gordon Bacon, CEO of Pulse Canada, sounded an optimistic note about the future of the agri-food sector now that the federal government is making it a priority.

“Our brand will be to show leadership in food safety, logistics, sustainability; that’s how we’ll be relevant,” he said.

“The dignity of food, food availability for all Canadians, secure food for our planet … that’s how we’ll make Canada great again on a global scale.”

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