Telus, Microsoft backing agriculture innovation project

Livestock

Some of this country’s largest technology companies are backing a $250 million, nationwide industry-led project shortlisted for federal innovation funding and designed to spur economic growth by better utilizing agricultural data.

Telus, Microsoft and IBM officials were among the more than 100 attendees who participated in a day-long data discussion organized by the Smart Agri-Food Super Cluster (SASC) in Ottawa, Tuesday. SASC, valued at $250 million and pegged to create up to 300,000 new jobs, is one of two industry-led agriculture innovation projects to be shortlisted for up to $950 million in federal funding.

The nearly $1 billion in federal funding was promised in Budget 2017 and earmarked for business-led innovation projects, called “superclusters,” aimed at bolstering Canadian economic growth within select industries and sectors.

The United Nations expects the world’s population to reach nine billion people in 2050 — growth that will require Canadian farmers and ranchers to increase production by 70 per cent to meet demand. Canada is currently the world’s fifth largest agriculture exporter.

That’s a “hairy situation” Mike Dittrich, director for Telus’ Smart Agriculture and Business Future sections, told iPolitics — a situation Telus feels it has a “social responsibility” to help the agriculture sector meet.

“Feeding the world is just going to get harder,” the cluster’s Interim CEO Robert Davies said, noting Canada is only one of five countries in the world to be a net exporter of agricultural goods.

The SASC cluster is backed by 17 universities and colleges, including Carleton University, Olds College, McGill University, the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, along with groups like MacDonald’s, Cargill, General Mills, Ducks Unlimited, The National Research Council, and the City of Ottawa. Four international NGOs have also signed on.

The Liberal government singled out the agriculture industry as one of a handful of sectors with significant growth potential (on the advice of McKinsey Executive Director Dominic Barton, who chaired Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Economic Growth Council). Canadian producers and processors have been challenged to grow this country’s agricultural exports to $75 billion by 2025.

Canada, Barton has said, should aim to be the world’s second largest agriculture exporter.

The federal government isn’t the only investor eyeing the sector’s potential for economic growth. In the course of the past four years, both Telus and Microsoft, both major technology providers, have prioritized investment and business decisions that target the farming and food sectors.

Some 24,000 of Telus’ 13.8 million customers are directly involved in the agriculture sector, Dittrich said, a customer base that has prompted the company to create a field service and customer support service aimed specifically at the agriculture industry.

Agriculture is a “foundational industry” Dittrich said. Yet, despite rapid technological advancements and rising farmer interest, only half of Canadian farms are embracing Smart Agriculture technology.

“We know the technology that has been available has been somewhat complex, it’s been difficult to install, difficult to maintain and the raw connectivity that we’ve talked about hasn’t always been there,” he said. Dittrich went on to say he thinks Telus can make a difference by working with the agriculture community to develop products that are cost-effective and user friendly.

The United Nation’s population growth projections have also caught Microsoft’s attention, with the global body’s Millenium Development goals receiving backing from the company. With little additional arable land available, the sector expects farmers will need to rely on data to help increase their productivity to meet the looming demand.

That’s easier said than done. The goal, John Weigelt said, is to make the new technology-heavy world “silly simple” for farmers to use while ensuring a “cohesive approach.” Weigelt leads Microsoft’s strategic policy and technology efforts.

“Farmers don’t want to fiddle with computers,” he said, telling the room producers would prefer to be in their barns, fields or working with livestock.

“Can we make [on-farm technology] as easy as Lego blocks?” Weigelt mused, noting Microsoft has developed data collection software (FarmBeats) that allows farmers to use technology like drones and sensors to increase crop yields.

Ottawa unveiled nine shortlisted proposals last October. The nine finalists were selected from a pool of 50 pitches involving more than 1,000 Canadian businesses, education institutions and organizations. The two agriculture proposals include SASC and the Protein Innovations Canada (PIC) Supercluster, which is based out of Saskatchewan and focuses on plant-based proteins.

Five projects will be picked in total, with the promised $950 million split between the selected projects over five years. The winners are expected to be announced in the next few months.

 

Credit: https://ipolitics.ca/2018/01/17/telus-microsoft-backing-agriculture-innovation-project/