Theresa Do is a Senior Manager of Strategy on RBC’s Economics and Thought Leadership team. She is one of the authors of RBC’s report, The Next Green Revolution. We sat down with Theresa to talk about The Transformative Seven. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CityAge: Why did RBC do this research?
Do: A lot of people might think it's interesting for a bank to get involved in Canada's food system. But RBC has been making a strategic pivot towards climate and net zero and agriculture produces about 10 to 20 percent of our emissions, depending on what metric you use. Canada’s economy is reliant on agriculture too. We’re one of the biggest exporters of agri-foods in the world. We export food to more than 200 countries. We supply more than 75 billion dollars worth of food to the world annually. And it touches every Canadian who eats food. All of these reasons combined made it such that RBC had to pay attention to it. It's critical. If we want to get to net zero, as a country, agriculture needs to be part of the picture, and we have to do it in partnership with all of our producers and the other ecosystem players around farms. To put it more directly, agriculture is Canada's moonshot. We have a really big chance of getting to net zero with agriculture. There can be so much innovation in food.
CityAge: The most recent chapter in your report is the Transformative Seven. That's where you get into the innovations, tools, and technologies that are most promising for the future of Canada’s agriculture sector. Did any of the findings surprise you?
Do: What surprised me the most was the data on private investment into agtech. And to be clear, we only had data available to us on private investment (venture capital and private equity), not total investment across the sector. So, there's not enough private investment in technologies that can reduce emissions in the highest-emitting areas, like cattle digestion. Canada punches above our weight in investments in precision technologies. We also punch above our weight in carbon capture. But when you look at feed additives and supplements for cattle, for example, which we see as a critical tool, there are only 8.8 million dollars invested in Canadian companies. Our share of global private investment is under one percent. So
these were the things that surprised me, because if we know what the problem is, why aren't we putting the money towards the biggest challenges?
CityAge: Do you have a sense of why that is from your research?
Do: There are a few different reasons. I spoke with an entrepreneur who was looking to get investment, and they’re coming across investors who are super keen, smart and well versed in food. Then they're getting investors really keen, smart, and well versed in science or tech and biotech. They're finding it difficult to find a lot of investors that understand both. Investors don't feel confident or they're not seeing the opportunity, and then they might decide not to invest. A lot of these tools are still very new. So I hope that our research puts a greater spotlight on some of these challenges.
CityAge: The report lists seven of the most potentially transformative technologies but they aren’t all at the same stage of development. Some are ready to scale and some aren’t. Why are some tools further along than others?
Do: It's a combination. Some things have less investment than others and some of them just haven't been around for as long. Carbon capture is much more mature, because we use it in our oil and gas sectors. There's been a lot of investment on that front because the technology is basically the same. You just apply it to a different thing. Precision technologies have been around forever, like smart tractors. They have a more developed supply chain and people are already using it. A big part of our report focuses on producer adoption, which is another important factor here. The farmers who I've spoken with have been very open-minded to using newer technologies, but if there’s not enough evidence backing up the solution, they don't want to risk potentially losing business or losing out on crops. On farms the margins are super thin. One bad season can mess up their cycles.
CityAge: How does Canada compare to other countries in agtech investment?
Do: That's such an interesting question, with an interesting answer. Agtech is a very broad term. We actually had a lot of debate on our team over how to describe it. Canada has done pretty well in adopting and investing in technologies that improve yields on farms because traditional farming is such a big part of our economy. But now we’re thinking about how to decarbonize the sector, which opens the door to a broader definition of Agtech. That's where you have the feed supplements come in. That's where things like cellular agriculture and lab grown meat are coming into the forefront. In Canada we tend to focus more on wheat production or other field crops instead of some technologies that people might not see as agriculture because it's in a lab, or a warehouse. But if you think about some of these newer technologies, you see countries like Israel, Singapore, and even the Netherlands, trying novel tools in part because they have to. Think of Singapore. It's an island nation. It doesn’t have many of its own natural resources. They have a goal of trying to grow more food domestically because they don't want to be reliant on exports. Same thing with Israel. In Canada we haven't had to consider these newer innovations as much as other countries have had to, because we have such an abundance of farmland and other natural resources. But now we are starting to pay more attention to them.
CityAge: What role do you think the public sector needs to play to adopt these technologies?
Do: Crown corporations, universities and schooling systems can all play a part. We produce such amazing research in Canada, and some people might say that it's not being commercialized enough. So how do you build that?How do you facilitate that pipeline of research that's in academia? How do we commercialize that, build companies out of that pipeline, and test it? Everyone talks about Silicon Valley, and the reason it works is because it's built around Stanford and the other universities. Companies are born out of these schools. So if we can start to build that around agriculture, like an agtech Canadian Silicon Valley, or whatever you want to call it, to connect players together, that would be huge.
CityAge: If you were to single out one issue as the major problem we have in Canadian agriculture, what would it be?
Do: The biggest challenge, I would say, is us. People. Our social habits and behaviors. Food is incredibly personal. Think about Christmas growing up. What did you have for dinner every year? Was it a turkey? Was it a ham? A steak? A lamb? Food and meat are such a big part of our life. Even Burgers on Canada Day. We're so used to eating the way that we eat now. I think of food waste too. Food waste contributes 12 megatons to our emissions. Theoretically that should be easy to change, because it's all within our control, right? But it’s hard. How do we preserve our traditions, while also being climate friendly and pay attention to the emissions we produce? That is the biggest challenge.