It's been an exciting year in the agri-food sector in Canada. Economic, weather and trade issues have dominated the agricultural headlines. So what lies ahead for the coming year? Here are what the consulting team at Synthesis Agri-Food Network is predicting will be the big trends and issues to watch for in 2011.
Although it's generally accepted that Canada is recovering from the global financial crisis, fiscal uncertainty continues to plague various countries around the world, including some EU members like Ireland, Spain and Portugal. The prospect of a potential currency war between the United States and China is looming and the U.S. is plagued with financial problems and lingering economic malaise. This could have impacts on export-dependent commodity sectors in Canada, although overall, agriculture in general is expected to strengthen again as it did in 2008.
Green and blue sustainability
The buzz around sustainability programs will continue to increase, driven by the food industry and retailers like Wal-Mart. This includes social, economic and environmental sustainability - lower greenhouse gas emissions, smaller carbon footprints, fair trade programs and responsible production practices. Many Canadian farmers are already involved in some of these initiatives - like the 4R fertilizer stewardship program - but improvements can be made. The difference in the future will be the need to be able to prove it and the opportunity to tell the story about improvement and more sustainable practices.
The growing 3G network is improving mobile access across the country, smartphones are rapidly expanding their capabilities and tablet computers are hitting the market. This year saw the launch of ag-specific applications for Blackberry and just this week, an iPad app for grain market information was released. The swing to mobile will take flight in 2011 as farmers, and those who serve them, flock to this technology as a source of information and vehicle to do business on the go.
Upheaval in the livestock sector
Canadian cattle and hog farmers have had a rough ride for the last number of years due to rising input costs, the high Canadian dollar, BSE and H1N1, and the challenges posed by the U.S. country of origin labelling. The outlook for a significant turnaround in 2011 is not strong. The national beef and swine breeding herds have both decreased considerably, which will result in changes to Canada's livestock production landscape. Reduced production numbers could mean an inability to meet our export market obligations or an increase in foreign-produced beef and pork in our stores here at home.
Canada's canola crop
After the challenges with the 2010 crop, the market will be closely watching Canada's canola production in 2011. As investments in canola research and development continue, growers have access to higher yielding varieties that are also resistant to damaging diseases like clubroot and sclerotinia. Expanded processing capacity is now in place across Western Canada, which will set the stage for even further growth. Already, canola acres are forecast to be higher next year; what this will mean to production acreage of other grain and oilseed crops in Canada is not yet clear. Market access issues will also be closely watched in 2011 as industry and government work to expand markets and to find solutions before China's one-year import extension expires.
Connecting with consumers
Social media will continue to rise in popularity in the farm community. Tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have made it possible for farmers to connect directly with consumers - to sell their products, answer their questions and promote what they do and why they do it. The local food movement, along with public mistrust of advertising and a growing curiosity about where food comes from will further help fuel this trend.
Canadians enjoy one of the safest, most abundant food supplies in the world, but we can expect an increasing number of food recalls in the future, just due to testing technology improvements that will find ever-smaller traces of bacteria or residues. For food companies, prevention and preparation is the key to avoid these events as well as the financial and public relations fallout associated with an outbreak of food-borne illness. Expect an increased focus on implementing and fine-tuning of fast response traceability systems and more pressure on the food processing sector.
Free trade with the European Union
Negotiations between Canada and the European Union (EU) on the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) are expected to result in a final agreement in 2011. The 27-member EU represents a market of over 500 million consumers which presents significant opportunities for export-based commodities. At the same time, although it is not yet known what kind of trade concessions Canada will have to make as part of the negotiations, there is concern over what access EU-commodities may get to the Canadian market and what impacts this will have on farmers and agri-businesses in this country.
General outlook for 2011
Canadian agriculture is a significant part of the national economy and agri-food, especially food processing, is a key contributor of jobs and driver of economic activity. This is expected to continue in 2011 as government and the public increasingly look to the sector for solutions to major societal issues.
"Agriculture is now being viewed by many, including major national media, as the solution for some environmental and energy issues and for improving our health and wellness," says Rob Hannam, President of Synthesis Agri-Food Network. "This means our sector will continue to be at the forefront of the national movement towards social sustainability -this will provide new opportunities, as well as more scrutiny, for agriculture and food in 2011 and beyond."