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Innovation report raises potential of traditional industries

Traditional industries are a major economic driver yet they are largely ignored in public policy making

The agri-food sector should consider joining forces with the fisheries, mining, forestry and energy industries to remind Canadians how important the country’s original economic building blocks remain.

The forestry, mining and energy sectors generate about 11 per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product, says a new report from the Public Policy Forum.

Add in at least eight per cent of the GDP that comes from the agri-food sector and a contribution from fisheries and the traditional industries easily account for 20 per cent of the economy, says PPF president David Mitchell. That finding bumps up against the widely quoted maxim that big cities are the economic engines of the country.

The GDP is a widely recognized yardstick of economic growth and importance.

“The traditional industries are a major segment of the economy, but they’re largely ignored in government policy-making,” Mitchell said in an interview.

While agri-food isn’t mentioned in the report, its observations and conclusions would apply just as much to the food sector as they do to extractive industries.

The thrust of the report, based on consultations with business leaders, was the need to encourage innovation so these industries can remain internationally competitive, Mitchell said. The forum’s work was supported by Natural Resources Canada, which is why agriculture and fisheries weren’t included in the calculation. He hopes those sectors will come into play in future studies.

Mitchell says the forum has been researching the agri-food sector. He praises it for working hard to create an international reputation for high-quality and innovative products.

Because they face similar problems and are export dependent, the traditional industries need to share their ideas, he added. “We want a multi-sectoral dialogue among producers, the research community, the policy community and governments at all levels. We want to get people out of their silos.”

The forum hopes in the future to get involved in discussions on food safety and security, he said. The other industries could also learn from efforts by several organizations to produce a National Food Strategy.

In a paragraph that will resonate with the agri-food industry, the report says, “For too long, a single narrative has dominated perceptions of Canada’s natural resources sector, epitomized by the phrase hewers of wood and drawers of water. This narrative maintains that the extraction, processing and export of primary resources (commodities) is old economy activity of inherently low value with little potential for innovation, whereas good jobs, wealth creation and sustainable economic development depends on knowledge generation and innovation in the new economy such as higher-value manufacturing and services sectors.”

The report notes “there are always going to be better ways to hew wood and draw water — that high-skilled, high-paying jobs and advanced products, processes and systems are fundamental to success in resource industries. There is as much economic potential for innovation in the natural resources sector as in any other.”

The traditional industries “need to work together to embrace a broader view of innovation and to step up efforts to convey to Canadians the importance of innovation to the sector, to fundamentally change its image with the public.”

Rural communities require basic infrastructure like roads and telecommunications along with education and social services “to ensure the full engagement of local populations.”

Another theme in the report that should be familiar to agri-food is “the importance of telling the story of the resources sector — and the advances that have been made — as fundamental to its ability to enhance its innovative capacity and engage Canadians. Companies across the sector are reducing their environmental footprint, reducing energy use and water consumption, achieving process efficiencies and realizing substantial shareholder returns through innovation.”

The report observed that “a single national voice must be identified, representative of all industries and stakeholders, to channel multiple and diverse perspectives into an effective, actionable strategy.”

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