The new year leads one to think about the future. In my case, the future of food always comes to mind. We just passed the seven billion mark in global population, and all predictions are that by 2050 the population will be nine billion-plus. And it won’t stop there. Can we feed them? What does that mean for the Canadian food sector?
Challenges and benefits
Canada has vast resources related to food in the form of productive land, water, oceans all around, strong infrastructure in food processing, research, supply industries, logistics and more. Doesn’t this mean we have a responsibility to maximize our use of those resources while ensuring we do not exhaust them? I say it does. It also represents, as a result of that richness, an opportunity for the Canadian food sector and the Canadian economy.
In addition to the population growth, we are faced with chronic health issues and rising health care costs, some of which can be addressed through diet and nutrition. We have a looming energy and environmental crisis, and need to be proactive to make improvements.
I believe we do have the opportunity to create a Canadian food sector that is globally competitive and financially sustainable and is the global leader in the food industry. We can provide good food that is safe, healthy and responsibly produced to both Canadian and export markets.
What Needs to Happen?
There are three major areas of focus needed to ensure we are globally competitive, financially stable and sustainable over time.
1. We are often said to lack innovation in our food sector. Many studies show that to be true. We need to understand the markets – domestic and export – and use innovation to supply the markets with what they need – whether that’s basic commodities, upscale, convenient, healthier foods, whatever.
2. We are also said to lack productivity. This is usually attributed to our smaller scale. But while scale may be an issue, there are many ways to overcome it, including continuous process improvement, lean/six sigma, value chain collaboration, and putting more focus on innovation for new and more productive technologies.
3. We also need to have a very high level of sustainability. That means many things, including: outstanding full-chain food safety and traceability; ensuring the lowest possible level of energy use to grow and make our foods; vast reduction in waste generated at all levels and reusing what is generated; and finally, the social responsibility to ensure we are doing all of this in the most ethical manner possible. Again, we need to focus some innovation on how to carry all of this out much more effectively.
We have vast agricultural and marine resources. If we focus on selling raw commodities, it would create great economic benefits. But if we focused on adding more value, doing more processing of those commodities here, and use that to maximize value-added food exports and minimize food imports, we will create significantly greater benefits. There will be the investment, the jobs created, the taxes generated from these profitable operations – all of which would lead to the food sector being, by far, the largest sector of the Canadian economy.
We would also be making a contribution to feeding and maintaining the health of all those nine billion people by 2050 that few other countries could make.
We need a vision and action plan that all levels and segments of the food sector are committed to, with some variations by segment. For instance, the U.K. has its “Food 2030” plan. The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, the Conference Board of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture have all made attempts, and they’re reasonably closely aligned. Even government is starting to see it, with the Saint Andrews Statement that was issued in July speaking to many of these points.
The key issue now is leadership, which must come from industry and government working together. It can be done. Let’s make it our new year’s resolution!
Gary Fread is president of Fread & Associates Ltd., consultants to the food industry. He has spent 25 years in management positions in the food processing industry, with a background in sales, logistics, purchasing and technical areas. He has worked with Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and Morrison Lamothe, and is the past president and CEO of the Guelph Food Technology Centre. He is active in many food industry associations and organizations, serving on the boards of several. Contact him at [email protected]