Murad Al-Katib believes there are tremendous opportunities for Canadian agriculture on the world stage.
The president and CEO of Regina-based AGT Food and Ingredients delivered this message Nov. 14 as the keynote speaker at the 2018 edition of the Grain World conference in Winnipeg.
“When I was a kid I used to say we are the breadbasket of the world,” he said. “Wheat was the predominant crop in Davidson, Saskatchewan. That was something we could be very proud of. Cereals are still a massive part of our industry and continue to be, but now we’ve got a three-crop rotation. We’ve got the ability now in Saskatchewan with lentils, chickpeas and beans to complement the cereal rotation.”
Protein, he stressed, is now the key driver in the world agricultural market. He said he thinks Western Canada will be first on what he calls the “protein highway.”
“If we can successfully link that to the ‘silk road’ in Asia, I think we are going to be very, very successful,” Al-Katib said.
Along with that protein highway, he said, will be massive growth in the world’s population and in turn that will lead to a fundamental change in Canadian agriculture.
“The consumer Canada will serve 10, 20 years from now in agriculture is almost completely different than the consumer we are serving today,” he said. “The consumer today is based on the commodity nature of our agriculture economy. The consumer of the future is related to the $35 trillion in middle-class spending in Asia.”
To meet that huge demand Al-Katib said the world, over the coming years, will need to produce more food than it did in the previous 10,000 years. One avenue available is increasing plant-based protein consumption. With that in mind, he stated AGT is not ‘anti-meat’ as some in the agriculture industry have portrayed the company as being. Rather, Al-Katib noted there are tremendous opportunities for pork and beef producers as well in the coming years, but noted meat-based protein alone cannot meet the growing demand.
“It’s about looking at the environmental sustainability. It’s about looking at the overall consumer trends, I believe are irreversible trends. These are not ones that are here today and gone tomorrow. These are fundamental trends rooted in protein consumption, lower fat consumption and overall sustainability,” he said.
Al-Katib said the needed changes have already been developing in Canadian agriculture, such as the growth of lentil, chickpea and soybean production. Assisting that, he said, is the co-operation between players in the industry, such as AGT, with universities in undertaking research and development.
But Al-Katib said one cannot be confined to only science, and data analytics must be an integral part of taking a greater share of the emerging markets.
“We have to get our heads out of the sand in saying science is only all that matters. Unfortunately I’ve become unpopular with some scientists. Consumer behaviour and preferences govern my thinking,” Al-Katib said.
And to Al-Katib it is not only about how much of what crop Canada grows. Rather he stressed the value-added aspect pointed to the success there has been with canola in the production of canola oil.
One area Al-Katib does see as an impediment to growing Canada’s agriculture sector is government regulation. He cited a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that pegged Canada 36th out of 75 countries when it came to regulatory competitiveness.
“The quantification was the regulatory system in our country is equivalent to an estimated seven to eight per cent tariff on small business. This is an unacceptable scenario. On a go-forward basis the regulatory system in this country needs to recognize that we don’t need regulatory chokeholds in order to protect public safety and public trust,” he said and called for the modernization of the regulatory system including the Canada Grains Act.
Another impediment Al-Katib pointed to was Canada’s lack of a 50-year infrastructure plan that shifts infrastructure from constantly being a political issue to becoming a national economic priority, such as was achieved in Australia. He said not only does Canada’s transportation system need to be improved, but also its communication system.
“Infrastructure also means fast, accessible broadband internet in the entire country. We should not be a country where if you want to be in business you have to move to a large city. As the agriculture sector wants to capitalize on a data analytics, we need modern, fast broadband. Government has to make that decision,” he said.
With the changes so far in agriculture Al-Katib has witnessed, he said the sector has evolved from being a drain on the country to becoming Canada’s top job creator. In citing 2015 statistics, agriculture accounted for 2.1 million jobs compared to 1.7 million jobs in manufacturing, one million jobs in education and 950,000 jobs in energy and renewables.