Cutting edge technology is changing agriculture in ways Canadians barely dreamed of fifteen years ago. Finding ways to seamlessly integrate that technology into daily life can be a challenge, but that’s what the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN) is working towards. Bringing together technology and agri-food companies for innovative solutions and growth across the sector, CAAIN is working to be the connector for the industry.
“CAAIN exists to bridge the gap between Canada’s agricultural and technology industries,” says Dr. Nicole Gaudette, a CAAIN program manager. “Essentially, we fund ideas that will help advance the agri-food sector. And while there are other organizations with similar goals, one thing different about us is our mandate to involve and help grow small businesses.”
“The entire food sector, from farms to grocery stores, is embracing new technologies.”
All this progress means growing career opportunities within the agri-food industry both here in Canada and around the globe. “The entire food sector, from farms to grocery stores, is embracing new technologies. That makes this an exciting area to be in right now and a great career choice for anyone trying to figure out what to study after high school.
“It’s predicted that by 2050, the global population will hit [approximately] ten billion and that the world’s demand for protein will jump by 70 per cent.” Dr. Gaudette pauses, then adds, “How can we meet that need when there’s less and less farmland and clean water? Working on the environment is one way. My expertise is in agri-food, and I can tell you we must also find technological solutions to make us better at growing, harvesting, processing, and distributing food. We have no choice but to find ways to produce more with less. There’s a lot of opportunity for anyone looking for a rewarding challenge.”
It’s an ambitious target to say the least. So, just how can we move that needle? By leveraging the exciting, fast paced world of technology within agriculture of course. Dr. Gaudette breaks down two of the latest technologies moving agri-food into the future.
Automation & Robotics: Easing the Manpower Demand
Automation and robotics are playing a key role in alleviating some of the burden common to food processing today. “You have to appreciate the amount of manual labour that currently goes into food processing,” says Dr. Gaudette. “The food we eat is directly handled by many people before it reaches our plates. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But what happens—and this is increasingly the case—when we can’t find enough workers to get the job done?”
Dr. Gaudette sees robotics and automation as a way to create opportunities that replace entry-level jobs with skilled, highly technical positions. “So, we’re reducing the entire food system’s dependence on manual labour, and at the same time, opening doors to rewarding careers.”
Whether in meat or dairy processing, or right on the farm, automation and robotics are reducing some of the pressure our food processing industry faces. “Over the past year, the fallout from COVID-19 has included a number of instances where food processing operations have been crippled, or even entirely shut down, by outbreaks. So, in addition to reducing the need for low-paying line work, automation has the potential to mitigate risk and improve safety throughout the food system,” says Dr. Gaudette. “Necessity drives invention, and food processors are now seeing a need they have to address. That’s part of what we’re supporting at CAAIN—that search for tech that makes it easier to produce and deliver the food we eat.”
Blockchain: The Transparent and Traceable Journey of Our Food
One thing we all have in common, whether we work in agri-food or not, is the fact that we are all consumers. From the grocery store to the convenience shop or restaurant, the food we eat has been produced somewhere and likely has a long chain of activity. Planting, harvesting, processing, packaging, and shipping are all part of our food’s journey before it makes its way into our homes.
“Supply chains are lengthy and complex. Canadians now want to know more about where their food comes from and who handled it along its journey from farm to plate,” explains Dr. Gaudette. “That’s where an amazing technology called blockchain enters the picture. Simply put, the term refers to a traceable string of data that grows with every touchpoint. Essentially, every interaction of a particular product is tagged with an encoded time and location stamp. That means that with the simple scan of a QR code, retailers and their customers can now know everything about the food on store shelves. This transparency and traceability build trust between consumer and supplier.”
To further illustrate this concept, Dr. Gaudette recalls an incident from 2006. “There was an E. coli outbreak associated with some tainted spinach. The US Food and Drug Administration issued a recall that impacted the entire supply chain we just mentioned,” she explains. “This meant that all spinach had to be pulled from store shelves until the primary source of contamination could be identified, which took weeks. In addition to the health implications, there were significant financial losses.”
“If students are excited about technology, they should go into agtech because it’s a place to grow and thrive.”
Similar situations over the following years prompted retailers to seek solutions to reduce the effects of these events. “Blockchain is the answer,” says Dr. Gaudette. “That same spinach situation would now be resolved faster and with greater precision, saving money, and more importantly, lives.”
It’s no surprise advancing technology is creating an incredible demand for young minds to help out. “If students are excited about technology, they should go into agtech because it’s a place to grow and thrive,” says Dr. Gaudette.
By: Natalie Noble
For more information on agriculture technology explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.