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Recently, I gave a talk about the future of agriculture. The most difficult segment was addressing how our sector balances individuality with its dependence on systems. Systems are now part of every conversation and “systems thinking” is all the buzz.

American systems scientist Peter Senge provides a helpful definition of the term. “Systems thinking is a way of helping a person to view systems from a broad perspective that includes seeing overall structures, patterns and cycles in systems, rather than seeing only specific events in the system.”

Agriculture is focused on value chains, supply chains, commodity organizations, innovation superclusters and more. However, farmers are popularly portrayed as lone operators. We celebrate these wise, independent individuals and families tasked with the operation of profitable, sustainable farms.

Scientific research works in a similar way. While there is much collaboration and discussion, most innovative ideas are articulated by single scientists. Yet, research work is optimized when we ensure interdisciplinary collaboration.

Restricted by COVID-19, the last nine months are a case study of this parallel system in action. Obviously, it is easy for an individual to physically distance on 1,100 acres and farmers across Western Canada have generally produced a decent crop. Farmers have set up on-farm systems to reduce contact with fuel delivery drivers, input sales-people and milk truck operators. Rather than stop in for the usual chat, these visitors drop paperwork in the mailbox.

At the same time, our industry has run into pandemic-related issues in processing facilities and the movement of temporary foreign workers. Fortunately, these early hiccups diminished as the pandemic progressed.

What has the ag sector’s experience with coronavirus taught us about how to respond to future challenges and build resilience? We must emphasize both individuals and systems and also support farmers and other actors in the value chain in their individual roles. This might include the improvement of educational experiences in universities and colleges for young ag professionals. Training and knowledge-transfer modules on key topics can be developed to assist farmers in the improvement of their operations.

It is also important to continue to address mental health challenges, to learn from the successes of farm operations around the world and to ensure we bring new and innovative people into the sector through mentorship. We can do so through internships at our operations, as the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES) does. As well, we can celebrate the tremendous contributions of our colleagues by nominating them for awards such as those presented by the Alberta Order of Excellence Council (on which I serve).

We must also push hard to strengthen our systems. First, we need a systems approach to develop a sector-wide strategy to identify risks and opportunities. Despite the budgetary challenges facing governments we need them to make long-term investments in teaching and research. This will ensure we continue to produce great people and fill the innovation pipeline with new products and processes.

We need government to support agricultural trade policy. As well, government must assist with business risk and national challenges such as transportation. Funding agencies have to incorporate farmer needs into clear funding priorities. Companies need to collaborate to ensure supply chain success. Crop groups must continue to raise issues and invest farmer dollars to ensure the system works.

The agriculture and agri-food sectors have learned a great deal during 2020. We need to understand where we can excel as individuals and we need to ensure we support and optimize our systems. These are not competing ideas, but we need to be thoughtful and deliberate to expand the impact of both people and systems.

Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.


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