UNLEASHING ALBERTA’S AGRI-FOOD SECTOR
WE HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME CANADA’S FOOD PROVINCE
BY STAN BLADE
There is much discussion these days about having governments develop “evidence-based policy.” In my mind, this means developing new ideas for investments, regulations and initiatives based on independently created knowledge that is relevant to what is being planned. This new knowledge is described as “rigorously established objective evidence.”
But before we can demand such evidence-based policy we need to answer a few questions: 1) what do we want to accomplish? 2) who will we need to engage to ensure success? and, 3) why is this a priority over other policies and investments?
For 40 years or more, Alberta has sought to unleash its agri-food sector. We have amazing people, great companies, decent infrastructure, significant markets and an extraordinarily enviable land base. We also possess strong research and innovation capability complemented by universities and colleges that produce well-trained, critical-thinking graduates. This all enables us to be a major player in Canadian agri-food.
Recently, the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry released a draft of its long-awaited Science Innovation Framework for review by commodity groups and others. In my view, it missed the opportunity to capture a unique moment in time that Alberta must seize. Rather than criticize the draft policy I would like to create an outline of what such a policy should look like, based on my menu for creating evidence-based policy.
WHAT DO WE WANT TO ACCOMPLISH?
We should proclaim Alberta “Canada’s Food Province” and create a compelling 10-year vision for the province’s agri-food sector. Alberta annually exports $10 billion to $12 billion worth of agri-food products. We should aim for $25 billion in exports by 2028 while maintaining the highest standards of environmental stewardship. We should set targets on the percentage of products that receive primary and secondary processing within the province so we can enhance the value captured within Alberta.
We should consider how to optimize innovation. The evidence tells us small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) deliver new ideas quickly with significant job creation. We should aim for 100 new SMEs in agri-food by 2028. Do the exact numbers matter? Probably not, but they can emphasize our seriousness about growing our industry. And every decision taken by government would be shaped by our courageous vision.
The world’s leading agri-food groups are developing mechanisms for industry, government and academia to seamlessly work together. This is referred to as the “triple helix of innovation.” The beauty of this consortium structure is it brings the required elements together to drive economic and social development.
Internationally, such theory is embodied by initiatives such as Food Valley in the Netherlands, Scotland Food & Drink and Shaping New Zealand’s Food and Fibre Future. Brazil is leveraging Embrapa, its national agri-food research agency, with help from its partners in government and the private sector to dominate several global export categories.
WHY SHOULD THE ALBERTA AGRI-FOOD INDUSTRY BE A PRIORITY?
A set of recommendations made by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth in 2017 was dubbed “The Barton Report.” Council chair Dominic Barton oversaw an advisory group of business leaders tasked with determining where Canada could grow its GDP. The report they helped produce is the perfect platform to understand and act on Alberta’s agri-food potential. It advised that Canada can “win” by building on its agri-food assets “to become the trusted global leader in the supply of safe, nutritious and sustainable food for the 21st century.”
We can maintain the status quo, or government, industry and academia can risk going all-in to make Alberta agri-food a global success story.
Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.