- Canadian ag is well-positioned to meet evolving demand for proteins
- Targeted trade expansion could focus Canadian exporters on buyers diverse demands
- China’s G2 generation has emerged and is positioned to buy Canadian exports
- Canadian exporters must meet needs of informed, health conscience global consumers
- Canadian farmers challenged to nourish world, not just feed them
Food oddities are a tradition at the Canadian National Exhibition, and 2016 was no exception. Delicacies drawing some of the longest lines were crawling with protein: cricket tacos, beetle smoothies and “Crickety Lime Pie,” from the Bug Bistro. It seemed gimmicky, but underlying it all was a key driver of modern food production: the demand for alternative sources of protein. And despite the ick factor, when it comes to natural protein sources, insects rule.
Canadian farmers tend to spend a lot more energy controlling and cursing insects than praising them for their protein content. And that’s unlikely to change. But beyond the farm gate, history shows people’s protein choices evolve. For example, as new economies emerge, consumers tend to swap plant protein for animal protein.
Let’s not talk about China as an emerging economy. It has already emerged, and people there have the money to buy Canada’s high-quality products.
Canada’s livestock sector, supported by a relative abundance of land, feed and natural resources, has responded well to this economic driver. Animal protein demand is expected to grow as societies become more affluent. For Canada, it’s a solid, steady economic driver.
Is targeted trade expansion the way to go?
Other drivers make more flamboyant headlines. For example, international trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership are easy public targets for politicians abroad and reflect an overall pushback against globalization. Even when these trade deals seem to be ingrained in our culture, like the North American Free Trade Agreement. They’re political agreements that can be renegotiated from time to time.
This volatility sparks an uneasiness with J.P. Gervais, Vice-President and Chief Agricultural Economist at Farm Credit Canada. He wonders if more energy should be dedicated to developing trade relationships, targeting one or two countries – or even individual cities, given how some of them have such huge populations – rather than trying to deal with several countries at a time.
“Targeted trade expansion would focus Canadian exporters on what buyers really look for in a supplier,” he says. “Food preferences are very diverse after all, even within a country.”
This, he says, would lead to more predictable, and possibly just as lucrative, export opportunities in the long run. And, in this regard, China immediately comes to mind.
Forty cities in China have populations of more than one million. The New York City-based McKinsey Global Institute, which keeps a close eye on China, says population dynamics and the rising prosperity of inland cities there are key drivers in any economic discussion. Gervais agrees.
“Let’s not talk about China as an emerging economy,” he says. “It has already emerged, and people there have the money to buy Canada’s high-quality products.”
The McKinsey institute and others are particularly focused on what are called Generation 2 (G2) consumers in China – those who, today, are teenagers and people in their early 20s being raised in a period of relative abundance and influenced by Western culture.
Canada’s food sector certainly knows how to cater to the Western world’s tastes. But G2 consumers in China are like young people on other continents in their campaigns and movements targeting modern agriculture – such as anti-technology campaigns and GMO-free food. They demand what they consider a more nutritious and better-balanced diet.
Nutrition-and-diet will drive demand and exports
To Prof. Evan Fraser, director of the Food Institute of the University of Guelph, that nutrition-and-diet imperative will drive demand and exports everywhere. “People are becoming more aware and choosy about diets that fit their definition of nutrition and balance,” he says. “It also makes education about food more important than ever.”
Fraser, one of 10 principal investigators in a new $77-million sustainable research initiative at Guelph called “Food from Thought,” is advocating change. That includes a major shift in production that would see more emphasis on fruits and vegetables and protein-rich commodities such as pulses.
He and his research team say currently, on the basis of calories, about one-quarter of all food produced in the world is sugar – even though it’s recommended that consumption be less than five per cent of our daily intake. As well, there’s double the availability of cereals and three times more vegetable oil produced than recommended for a healthy diet. At the same time, only one-fifth of the fruit and vegetables recommended are actually being produced.
“Rectifying this imbalance is perhaps the most logical strategy for feeding a population of nine billion equitably and nutritiously,” says Fraser.
Fraser’s perspective is applauded by Zenia Tata, Colorado-based executive director of global development for XPrize, an incentivized competition for solving stubborn or difficult international problems, such as hunger and carbon emissions.
She believes creativity at the grassroots level – among plant researchers, developers and farmers – will greatly influence Canadian food demand abroad. To Tata, that means developing crops and livestock with additional nutrients that will provide the proteins and amino acids people need for better health.
“Canada has an abundance of land and water,” Tata says. “The challenge to your farmers is to use those resources to nourish people, not just feed them. That’s what people need, and Canada can do it.”