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Canada could do better in agri-food

Trust and transparency will be key to Canada’s export competitiveness in the future

Canada shouldn’t be content with its status as the world’s fifth-largest food exporter because it could be setting the global export pace, a conference on the future of the Canadian agri-food industry has been told.

“Canada is a laggard in the world food trade,” Lutz Goedde, of Denver-based McKinsey & Co. and a former CEO of an Alberta livestock genetics firm, told delegates to the Canadian Agri-Food Future Forum. “You have good systems but you’re not setting the pace internationally. Other countries are ahead of you.”

While Canada acts like it wants to continue as a low-cost commodity producer, “is that going to be the best market in the future?” he added. “Consumers are increasingly demanding better quality yet affordable food. They’re concerned about the environmental footprint of farms. At the same time, the nutritional quality of the food reaching most consumers has declined.”

These issues must be tackled by the food industry with the help of government, he urged. “Canada has to decide whether to put more effort into producing value-added products or stick with being a supplier of meat and grains.”

The country’s international significance suffers from lack of large food companies and a deterioration of basic research that will yield more suitable crops and livestock, he noted.

Growing population

At the same time, the industry can’t lose sight of the fact the world population is headed for at least nine billion by 2050 and that growing overall levels of affluence will add to the pressure for more food, Goedde said. “In the next 50 years, the world will have to produce as much food as it produced in the last 10,000 years.”

The two-day conference, organized by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and Canada 2020, brought together about 300 representatives of farm groups, food processors, consumer organizations and the federal and provincial governments. The organizers plan to promote the conference’s main conclusions with the new federal government in the future.

Catherine Moreddu, senior agriculture policy analyst with the OECD, told the conference that Canada “needs to focus on productivity and sustainability.” Canada’s productivity growth has slowed in recent years compared to other countries. Labour productivity has declined while the industry’s environmental performance has improved through reduced energy use. “As well, government support is less distorting than in the past.” That has encouraged a more business-oriented approach to agriculture in recent years.

New competition

The Canadian industry also has to watch emerging countries that could become competitors in the future, she said. “To keep up with them, you’ll have to place more emphasis on innovation, sustainability and adaptation to climate change.” The industry has to ensure that new technologies and innovations are readily transferred to farmers and processors.

Bill Buckner, senior vice-president for food safety and regulatory affairs with Cargill, said the Canadian industry should focus on prioritizing and collaborating on its future orientation while competing in the international food trade. At the same time, it has to build public trust at home and in other countries.

“Consumers want to know where their food is coming from,” he said. That makes trust and transparency important to the food industry so interested consumers can learn what they want about their food.

He urged the Canadian food industry to work toward making “itself the most trusted food supplier in the planet. Become the most talked about food production system.” That means delivering on superior food safety as well as being recognized as a reliable supplier of quality foods.

“Reaching that level will require significant collaboration throughout the food chain. Every stakeholder needs to be involved.” It won’t happen overnight. “You don’t run a marathon like a 100-yard dash.”

The canola and beef industry have made positive strides toward delivering what consumers increasingly expect, he said.

The discovery of BSE in an Alberta cow in 2003 devastated the beef industry for years but it led to the development of a national identification system for cattle “which is now a marketing advantage.”

The industry should listen “long and hard to consumers to understand their concerns with health and nutrition,” he said.

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