By Kim McConnell, BCA Special Advisor
Alberta’s agricultural sector looks vastly different today compared to 50 years ago. Forget the stereotypical image of agriculture. It’s no longer your grandparents’ farm: there are no overalls, red barns, or pitchforks.
Technology has transformed the way farms look, how they operate, and the way farmers manage their crops, livestock, soil, and grasslands. Today’s farms are high-tech and high-touch, and future innovation promises to bring even greater opportunity.
For over a century, Canadian research has developed new crops, pioneered new production, and manufactured technology-advanced farm equipment. These innovations are sought after and adopted around the world.
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Today, advancements in precision agriculture, genomics, fertilizers and drones have already transformed the agriculture industry and have enhanced yields, quality, and efficiency.
Precision agriculture uses yield monitors, GPS mapping, and variable rate technology to precisely map and manage crop and soil data. This allows farmers to make informed decisions about fertilizer application, irrigation and planting to increase efficiency and productivity.
Advanced genomics and selected breeding are widely used in Alberta’s crops and livestock industry to enhance productivity, efficiency, and nutrition.
Advancements in fertilizer technology are helping crop farmers reduce emissions. Practices like precision application and 4R nutrient stewardship are changing how farmers apply fertilizer. Moreover, farmers are using new technology, such as smart fertilizers that adapt to crop and climate conditions and fertilizers made from city waste, further contributing to sustainable agriculture.
Drones and robots are being employed in agriculture to monitor fields — from assessing crop health and monitoring livestock, to detecting weeds and pests — and to replace tasks people used to do. For example, robots can milk cows, feed and water animals, and plant and harvest greenhouse crops.
But innovation doesn’t stop there. Here’s a taste of technological advancements on the horizon.
Farmers are increasingly using artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict crop yields and identify areas of the field that are suffering from stress or disease. The Internet of Things connects farm equipment, sensors, and accounting and traceability software, allowing farmers to make more accurate and profitable decisions.
Blockchain technology is being tested in agriculture to increase transparency and traceability in supply chains.
Advancements in processing will expand opportunities in value-added agriculture. The future will see the energy and agriculture sectors working together to produce biofuels from waste, like animal fats, off-grade canola, and new crops.
These are just a few technologies that will continue to transform Alberta and western Canadian agriculture.
However, significant barriers remain. These include challenges related to regulatory approval, infrastructure development, and investment attraction.
First, regulatory approval is famously slow in Canada, and regulations differ between countries. This limits access to technology and tools, putting Albertan and Canadian agriculture at a disadvantage. Regulatory approvals at all levels of government should be more streamlined and efficient.
Second, infrastructure — specifically broadband capacity, rail transportation, and Port of Vancouver limitations — are significant challenges that need improvement.
Alberta should assist with projects that require substantial public investments, as the benefits that flow from them will support agriculture and other industries in the province.
Finally, attracting investment is a third challenge, particularly in the $20 million to $100 million range needed to move commodity products up the value chain in areas like value-added processing. Alberta should continue in its effort to make the province an attractive location for investment and growth.
In addressing these barriers, Alberta’s agriculture industry can realize the full opportunity of technology.
Kim McConnell is a Canadian agriculture expert and a Special Advisor and contributor to the Business Council of Alberta. This opinion is part of a series by BCA called Missions & Moonshots.