Expect the unexpected

Farmers and the agriculture industry will need to be ready for a lot of change to be thrown their way

Stan Blade at a grain elevator in Leduc, Alta., discussing the future of logistics in agriculture.

Stan Blade took to the Farm Forum Event virtual stage in mid-November to fight a few farming clichés.

The dean of the faculty of agricultural life and environmental sciences at the University of Alberta took advantage of the format to pre-record his presentation, “Whatever You Think You Know About Agriculture — the Future Will Not Be What You Expect,” at several locations throughout that province.

Blade said there are a number of “clichés” that every member of the sector should be trying to take a new look at.

The first backdrop was the Edmonton area, where Blade argued that agriculture needs to stop thinking of ‘climate resilience’ as ‘someone else’s problem.’

Most climate models predict a near future that sees a likely increase in agricultural productivity in Western Canada, but Blade points out that it would be folly to look at that data and think there’s nothing to worry about. He pointed to recent expansion of irrigation programs in Alberta as evidence that things are moving in the right direction, and said it’s important to maintain that focus.

“We’re thinking about all those other things that we can do in our agricultural systems to ensure that we have that resilience for not just the next 10 or 20 years but the next century or two,” Blade said.

At another stop on his video tour, Blade stood in front of an unnamed big-box retail outlet discussing the problem of food waste.

“It’s hard to find a location to talk about (food waste) because we enclose our waste,” Blade said. “We obviously don’t want to show it off.”

The piles of cosmetically beautiful fruits and vegetables seen at grocery stores create a myth of abundance. Blade points out that in a number of markets – especially in Europe – there is movement to bring back the ugly fruits and vegetables as part of the food system. Socially aware, ethically driven consumers are becoming more commonplace and the agricultural industry will be expected to respond to those consumers’ desires.

Another highlight saw Blade travel to the University of Alberta to discuss the continued importance of soil science.

“We’ve seen improvements in the way that we characterize soils,” said Blade. “We have a tremendous opportunity not only to open up additional productivity but also to think about the long-term sustainability of these soils as well.”

He discussed the future of food processing at the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre. There are big changes concurrently taking place in science and public perceptions that are driving the future of food and nutrition and there are huge opportunities available for processors and producers that position themselves to take advantage of them.

“As we get better at understanding, not only the genomics and the metabolomics of the chemical makeup of our food products, we will be able to tailor those to the kinds of things that the human body requires,” he said.

We shouldn’t expect that the familiar names that we see on our grocery store shelves will go on unchanged.

“It really is going to look a lot different in the future,” said Blade.

His other topics included logistics and infrastructure, food chains, the industry’s carbon footprint, and effective ways to connect with consumers.

His overriding message was that the industry is moving fast and it’s important not to become complacent and bogged down in traditional thinking.

In order to take advantage of many of the new opportunities that are presenting themselves, producers will have to embrace the coming changes.

Farm Forum is just the latest agriculture event to go forward in virtual form, and it focused on bringing together some of the industry’s top leaders and innovators to discuss trends and outlooks for agriculture in Canada.

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