Smart AgriFood Supercluster taps into 135-million acre innovation ecosystem


(The Smart AgriFood Supercluster is one of nine groups currently awaiting word from the federal government as to whether it will share in part of the $950-million innovation supercluster fund established earlier this year. It is conducting innovation community meetings across Canada to help the sector understand its economic, environmental,  job creation and innovation impact.) 

How big is your innovation ecosystem?

For the Smart AgriFood Supercluster (SASC), it's big. Very big.

Some 135 million acres, in fact.

That's 135. Million.  Acres.

SASC's ecosystem stretches across Canada, composed of farms and ranches, large and small, complemented by farms and facilities operated by research organizations and post-secondary institutions.

That's the landmass SASC has assembled as part of its effort to build a pan-Canadian platform to catalyse innovation in Canada's agrifood value chain. The fields are linked by a diverse array of more than 100 companies, large and small, in some way connected to agrifood. Those companies have committed millions of dollars designed to match federal funding. More companies are signalling daily they want to join SASC and its network of research organizations and post-secondary institutions.

But physical fields are only part of the equation – and the overall ecosystem.

SASC should also be viewed as a critical catalyst for the way the country's original innovation system – the "farm" – is revved up and supercharged to take advantage of the fact Canada is among only a handful of countries capable of exporting more food – raw and valued-added – than it produces.

To do so, though, requires a system of systems capable of synthesizing and synchronizing all the value chain's various links to ensure they function more inter-dependently, through better planning and communication, as well as targeted innovation investment.

The opportunity is just that: to be a key link in feeding a hungry world. To achieve that, an agrifood sector ecosystem that already functions reasonably well will need a new mechanism to achieve escape velocity from its current limitations (and often inertia). One limitation is that as subsystems, the discrete parts work fairly well, but not as synchronously as they might when functioning as part of a larger (and integrated) whole.

SASC is positioned to be just that mechanism.

Take protein. Growth in many Asian countries, for example, is creating all sorts of new markets for potentially exponential growth in products Canada is already supplying.

Demand for protein, both plant and animal, fit squarely into that growth – and Canada has protein power aplenty. SASC projects will focus on both types, but a recent sustainable livestock session held to connect to SASC's growing stakeholder community, provides useful insight into how examples of existing innovation momentum can be supercharged.

Four beef-sector initiatives case studies illustrate how SASC can slingshot existing projects to new levels and in the process, magnify and amplify their impact. All projects are progressing, but proponents agree SASC support would accelerate their progress – by providing an enhanced platform and better connectivity.

Here they are:

- Innovation and Technology Adoption Accelerator: the concept, proposed by the Beef Cattle Research Council, is to more effectively co-ordinate the diversity of extension advisory services available to beef producers. This would result in less technology transfer fragmentation while simultaneously incenting more rapid and universal adoption of game-changing innovations and business practices. SASC can be the safe and neutral forum in which all extension providers can collaborate through better co-ordination.

- Canadian Beef Improvement Network: Genetics are important to producing good beef, as well as enhancing the sector’s overall effectiveness. While a small number of producers use genetics in their growing strategies, there is potential to increase those numbers and concurrently drive down the sector’s overall environmental impact.  SASC would be a proponent for more effective genetics through two of its key innovation communities: genetics & processing and sustainable livestock.

- Export Market Development: there exist opportunities in Asian countries, including China, to tap into burgeoning “affluence” demand – particularly where Canadian beef is highly valued. One Alberta company is promoting a "luxury brand" of beef, designed to tap into Chinese appetite for an increasingly broad range of designer products, including food. SASC can help accelerate the process by helping co-ordinate the necessary traceability and data management systems necessary to support claims to the product’s value.

- Beef Supply Chain Accelerator: Canada’s beef sector supply chain needs fine tuning in order to meet future demand. The Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration project is an initiative to track animals through the system’s complexity in a way that links producers directly to multiple end users. SASC’s role would be to implement the pilot project’s results to a substantially broader community of practice than is currently involved at the pilot level.

Protein, plant and animal, is a critical element of SASC’s mandate – but it is protein fitted into strategies that also foreground sector and environmental sustainability and along with that, position Canada to continue to be a global agrifood leader.

That’s what you can do when you have 135 million acres at your disposal.

(The author is a member of the SASC transition board and EVP of Weather Innovations, one of the SASC supporting companies.)