Letters: Ottawa offers fertile ground for ‘smart agriculture’ hub

Ottawa's Experimental Farm.

The following letter to the editor was penned in response to OBJ's September 2019 edition on Ottawa's agriculture economy.

Kudos to OBJ for shedding some much-needed light on our dynamic regional agri-food ecosystem in its September 2019 edition. Despite all the hype and glamour that surround other socio-economic sectors that usually make it to the front page of OBJ, one fact remains: humans still need to eat. We need to produce more food and to ensure that it reaches the billions of mouths of an exponentially growing world population that is expecting an increasingly diverse supply of quality agricultural and food products.

Breakthroughs in agricultural science, business, engineering and technology during the 1800s and 1900s have allowed for the rapid specialization of our modern agri-food industry. The main outcome: millions of people worldwide have been relieved from the drudgery of human- and animal-powered agriculture. 

Today, there are only a handful of agricultural producers and of farm and food industry workers in Canada that produce not only most of the food that we need but also large quantities of grains, oilseeds, livestock and animal products that are exported all over the globe. As a result, the vast majority of Canadians do not need to toil at growing the plants and raising the animals that will feed them. Instead, they can focus their energy, creativity and innovation on other equally worthy purposes in the arts, industry, science or technology. Without modern agriculture, there wouldn’t be a modern world, period.

Modern agriculture has nothing to envy to other high-tech sectors when it comes to being “connected” and “intelligent.” Precision agriculture technologies for both crop and animal production have been around for well over a quarter of a century. These technologies allow for the optimal matching of inputs (that is, seeds, fertilizers or pesticides in the case of crops; feed, supplements or medication in the case of animals) and outputs (biomass, grains, fruits, nuts, roots and other crop products; meat, milk, eggs and other animal products). 

Developments in autonomous vehicle technologies, artificial intelligence, machine communication and data management and analysis are as important for modern agriculture as they are for other industries. The operator station of a modern agricultural tractor or combine harvester has much more in common with the cockpit of a jet airplane than with the open-air platforms of the “Johnny Poppers” of the early 1900s!

We currently market Ottawa as a “smart city” with expertise and resources in six knowledge-based Industries: life science; software; digital media; communications technology; clean technologies; and aerospace, defence and security. Nothing wrong with that. However, I would argue that smart agriculture and food technologies should be added to that list. The list of Ottawa’s advantages in that area is long and compelling: the national headquarters of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are here; there are diverse crop and animal production operations within the city limits, as well as large and diverse areas of agricultural land; our region is home to excellent post-secondary institutions and technological companies; and we now have unique facilities and resources for connected and autonomous technologies (the L5 testing facilities) that can benefit both road and off-road vehicles. 

Together, let’s make Ottawa a go-to place when it comes to making our modern agricultural and food production systems more diverse, sustainable, efficient and effective!

Prof. Claude Laguë,
Faculty of Engineering, University of Ottawa