Ask an expert - The crystal ball
Dr. Gordon Surgeoner
Agriculture professor and trend-watcher Dr. Gordon Surgeoner looks for potential in the industry
What are some major trends in food consumption today that might be considered game changers in agriculture?
I think there are two fundamental demographic issues causing change. One is a focus on health for an aging population and obese society. Obesity issues are translating into more Type 2 diabetes and the food industry is responding with less salt, more fibre, more nutrition and antioxidants. I suspect vitamin D is going to be like the omegas of today because there is lots of medical information on its impact on reducing cancer probability, etc. The other factor causing change is the Canadian demographics. Much of our population growth is because of immigration from southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, India, China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, where there’s a very different set of dietary desires. Those immigrants will slowly adapt to Canadian tastes, but it will take time.
How do you see agriculture responding to those trends?
In Ontario, we are seeing water buffalo herds for the production of specialty cheese for our southeast Asian market. Although this cheese has a much heavier fat content, it’s desired by this population segment. Goat and rabbit are also rapidly growing meat markets. The Blue Menu available in the Loblaw’s chain is also responding to consumer trends – convenience with taste, less salt, less calories and better fat. We are going to see things like palm, corn and soy oil changing their profiles to get closer to canola oil. A growing market segment is the baby boomers who are becoming woofers, the “well off old folk” willing to pay more for health, taste and convenience, but who want smaller portions.
What do you predict for trends in agriculture?
In my opinion, you have two ways to grow: export markets on the food side or alternative products for society, which are about replacing fossil fuel.
Consumer food choices often come at the expense of the other. If I get more market share for pork, it will be at the expense of the other meats. Our Canadian population is growing at a rate of one per cent, most of that from Asian communities. We have to recognize that demand is changing. Our future customers will be from places that have not traditionally sat down to roast beef, mashed potatoes and green peas. They use different cuts of meat. We have to think differently for these food markets. A good example is wheat. What varieties of wheat are better for making Indian naan flat bread versus white bread?
Around the world, there are market segments that are bigger than all of Canada in terms of market opportunities. Relationship building will be important. I believe our growth markets have to be export-oriented, but there are ethnic populations in North America, such as Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles that we could be providing food for. But we have to go there to find the customers and grow what they want, not what we want.
We have to look beyond food and feed to other possibilities including energy and components, such as car parts. There are groundbreaking things happening in agriculture.
What is the next game changer for agriculture?
In my opinion, the next thing is not a food issue. We can make products that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and our greenhouse gas emissions. These are huge growth-potential areas that have the green component. Green is good, but I have to have the functionality, the supply and the price point. Figure out what engine oil costs and tell me if we can’t do better than that. We can.
Dr. Gordon Surgeoner is President of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, a non-profit organization consisting of members from farm associations, universities, industry and governments. The organization focuses on ensuring that Ontario producers have access to the latest technologies to compete globally and to develop new market opportunities.
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