Opinion: Changing face of agriculture needs to start early

Last year the Ministry of Agriculture engaged a three-person “Food Security Task Force” to explore how British Columbia could best adapt in a changing world of food production. The result of that work was recently published and it’s available for you to review on the ministry’s website.

Entitled The Future of B.C.’s Food System, the document illustrates how agriculture is changing and recommends how the agri-food industry can evolve to maintain a leadership role in shaping future food production in dynamic scenarios. Climate change, limited access to arable land and a continually dwindling labour supply are some of the factors that can often paint a daunting picture.

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Optimism would suggest that we have always adapted and that we will continue to do so. The report’s authors support this optimism. Indeed, throughout the ages, humans have managed to adapt to a multitude of environmental and geographical roadblocks.

Agriculture is far less visible to us now. The report reminds us that in 1921 33.3 per cent of the population was working in agriculture in Canada. Despite our ever-increasing population, that number is now hovering around two per cent.

The report is quite broad and thorough, and although I have not read it in its entirety, there are a couple of underlying themes that dominate its contents. The report tells us that we must look to technology and innovation to succeed in the future and that resources should be spent to explore “agritech” as a means of remaining competitive and of achieving sustainability.

The report suggests we should “develop targeted programs focused on creating the skills and talent needed to support the future of agriculture and agritech.”

An ultimate goal, as suggested by the authors, is to create an “Institute for Agricultural Excellence” in the province, essentially a place of higher learning where robotics, advanced processing, greenhouse, vertical growing techniques and other modern food production methods would be taught as is the case elsewhere in the world.

The thought here is to aggregate academia across the several post-secondary opportunities that are available to young people in our province currently, and to advance the exploration of agri-tech in the agri-food sector. This makes perfect sense.

What does not quite make sense, yet, is the lament for the sector to find skilled workers. That is like the restaurant industry saying that it needs more chefs. You have to train young people and that has to start early.

It’s not like kids graduate from high school and have an epiphany that they want to develop plant-based proteins or develop a new strain of rain-resistant cherry. They have to be educated as to the role of agriculture and the job opportunities within it. From farmer to processor, the jobs are there by the hundreds and if this report is to have any sustainable impact, it needs to address agriculture in the curriculum, K-12.

Luckily we are on the right track here in Delta. The school district, the city, the Delta Agricultural Society, the Delta Farmers Institute, the BC Youth in Agriculture Foundation and others all recognize the importance of engaging students in the hopes they will have a goal of attending an Institute for Agricultural Excellence one day.

Mike Schneider is founder of Project Pickle and likes to write about growing, cooking and eating food. He is a Jamie Oliver Food Revolution ambassador.

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