The pace of innovation in the agriculture sector is rapidly accelerating, as producers and processors look to feed a population that is expected to grow by 2 billion people in the next 30 years.

But the debate is also growing as society demands improvements in the safety, affordability and environmental impact of crops, while at the same time having a negative perception toward many of the innovations in the global crop sector, said Patti Miller, chair of the Canada Grains Council, during the Canadian Global Crops Symposium April 11-13 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

“There are a lot of interesting, incredible advances going on in agriculture and food,” said Tyler Bjornson, president, Canada Grains Council. “We have the task of making sure that the general population and decision-makers understand our issues and make the right decisions.”

Presenters at the third annual symposium addressed some of the current and future agriculture and food innovations, including the challenges and opportunities they offer.

Public perception

Studies show the agriculture industry has some work to do in improving public perception of agriculture innovation, particularly in terms of genetic modification (GM), Bjornson said. There is a significant gap between how scientists feel about GM, and how the general public perceives it, he said.

A survey from the Pew Research Center of U.S. citizens and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found that 37% of people thought it was safe to eat GM food while 88% of scientists said it was safe. That question had the largest difference in opinion between AAAS scientists and the public.

Only 28% of the public said it was safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared to 68% of scientists. Bjornson said he was shocked that more people (47%) were in favor of using animals in research than they were in favor of eating GM food or food grown with pesticides.

Another study completed by the government of Saskatchewan in 2014 found that 38% of the people in that province disagreed or strongly disagreed that GM is necessary in order to feed the growing world population.

“If fully half of the people in Saskatchewan are saying, ‘I’m not sure about innovation in food,’ imagine what the people in Los Angeles or New York are saying,” Bjornson said.

In general, people trust farmers, academics and scientists, but when it comes to GM, 67% think scientists don’t have a clear understanding of the health effects of the crops, according to the Pew study.

“Even scientists, who are normally credible voices, are having a tough time on some of our key issues,” Bjornson said. “This general skepticism of innovation in food and agriculture is growing.”

From 2009 to 2014, there was a 10% increase in the number of people who said innovation in food is making life more difficult. Scientists said that less than half of the time (46%), best science is guiding food safety regulations. That drops to just 15% in terms of land use.

Given this type of perception, and the general direction in the media, it’s not surprising that politicians and decision-makers respond to the public perception, Bjornson said.

“Are we doing everything we can, because we know we are playing defense to make sure that we are protecting our investments and things that are important to agriculture to advance the industry, not only to improve profitability throughout the value chain, but ensure we are providing safe and healthy and cost effective food around the world?”

Bjornson said the industry has to be prepared to deal with the perception of reality – what do people think – and the reality of perception – why the decisions are being made.

Precision agriculture

Agriculture’s innovations are impressive, but they are meaningless if farmers don’t have access to the tools, said Jesus Madrazo, global corporate engagement lead, Monsanto.

“This is why it’s important to engage with consumers to help them understand how these tools are helping farmers to produce more with less,” he said.

Monsanto spent many years engaging with farmer customers, employees and policymakers, but spent little time explaining the science to consumers, he said.

“The reality is not only farmers care about where the food comes from,” Madrazo said. “We are changing our approach and more people are joining the conversation. We have 4,500 ambassadors around the world in Monsanto who are having conversations with their communities and their friends about what agriculture is and what it is not.”

The story they have to tell is one of increasingly precise agriculture, and an industry that is working to have a significant positive impact on climate change. With the vast amount of data available, Monsanto can help farmers make more accurate decisions, real-time in the field, making farming even more efficient than it is today, Madrazo said.

“Farming is becoming at a very fast pace an enterprise where incredible precision is possible,” he said. “We can help a farmer map every field down to the square meter with a wealth of location-specific data. This helps the farmer know exactly what kind of seed to plant, where to plant it, what space to use, when to irrigate, when to use pesticides, and when to use nutrients.”

That means a farmer will use what they need, and no more, Madrazo said. Such precision and technological advancements have allowed the acreage of soybeans in Western Canada to nearly triple in just the last five to six years. Similarly, corn acreage has grown – something that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

One study by CropLife Canada estimated that without the tools farmers have today, there would need to be 19 million more acres of canola to be able to produce at today’s levels.

“Think of the consequences of that,” Madrazo said.

Innovation is essential for agriculture’s future as the industry must feed an ever-growing population while at the same time facing scarcer resources in terms of land and water as well as the impacts of climate change, Madrazo said.

“Our world is getting dryer and warmer. The weather patterns that we are experiencing in agriculture are shifting in unpredictable ways,” he said. “Agriculture is the industry that is the most impacted by this phenomenon, but also one of things that is contributing to it.”

But it can also have a big impact in fighting climate change through no-till practices, cover crops, hybrid seeds and other agronomy practices.

“We can make crops like corn and soy carbon neutral; that’s how agriculture can contribute to managing climate change,” Madrazo said.

To that end, Monsanto is starting in its own backyard with a pledge to make all of its operations, from seed production to crop protection, carbon neutral by 2021. The company will accomplish this, Madrazo said, by partnering with farmers around the world.

“There is a path to get there. Agriculture is absolutely the most impactful way to address climate change going forward,” he said. “I believe this is just an example of how feeding an additional 2 billion people requires dramatic technology and innovation in every single part of agriculture.”

Government help

The government of Canada is doing its part to move innovation forward by supporting agricultural research projects in the upstream, far from market introduction, said Brian Gray, assistant deputy minister, Science and Technology Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

“We are generally at the discovery level far upstream, but need to be complimentary to the private sector,” he said. “Our investment in the innovation continuum is complemented with producer organizations, the private sector and provinces. We need to make sure that we don’t have any gaps.”

One key responsibility for public sector science is supporting innovation to improve the economic well being of Canadians, including enhancing the productivity of crops and livestock in response to pests, diseases and a changing climate; and development of food attributes to enhance sector competitiveness.

Of the Science and Technology Branch’s C$71 million operating budget, about 95% is allocated to research, 4% in development and 1% on technology and knowledge transfer, the area closest to commercialization.

AAFC is the largest federal employer of research scientists and has a national network of 20 research and development centers across the country. Affiliated with those centers, there are an additional 34 smaller research farms.

The expertise has evolved as the needs have changed, and the department is engaged in research now that would have been impossible just 20 years ago.

AAFC science activity is divided by four strategic objectives that address major scientific challenges of today including:

Increasing agricultural pro-ductivity, at an individual commodity level and from a systems perspective, such as crop rotations, and livestock and forage systems;
Enhancing environmental performance, such as improved nutrient utilization and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions;
Improving attributes for food and non-food uses, such as nutritional attributes, use of crops as pharmaceuticals and bio-chemicals; and
Addressing threats to the agriculture and agri-food value chain, including catastrophic risks associated with weeds, insects and disease as well as risks to food safety.

In consultations with the sector, AAFC has developed sector science strategies for all major crops, as well as for biodiversity and bioresources, agro-ecosystem productivity, bioproducts, and agri-food sectors.
Each one of the strategies is comprehensive and reviewed annually so make sure the gaps are being filled, Gray said. They are the compass in making decisions on capital investment, partnerships, science projects and staffing.

The department can have up to 400 scientists and currently has 385, about one-third of which can retire this fiscal year. While not all will likely leave, replacing these positions is very important, Gray said.

Roundtable discussions have started, and the department is reaching out to science clusters, Value Chain Round Tables, university deans, and organizations for input on how to divide the manpower among the nine strategies – biodiversity and bioresources; agro-ecosystem productivity; bioproducts; dairy, pork and other livestock; agri-food; forages and beef; horticulture; oilseeds; and cereals and pulses.

“Ongoing discussions with universities, provinces, and industry partners will help inform our hiring decisions and identify partnerships,” Gray said. “It’s critical we get input so that we are addressing the agriculture sectors most important needs.”