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OPINION: Why 2021 Has Put Canada’s Agtech Industry In The Global Spotlight

Dave Dinesen, Chief Executive Officer at CubicFarms, shares how Agtech companies are needed now more than ever before.

Touring the rows of crops at a major farm in British Columbia in early July, the devastation was incomprehensible. These plants—rooted in the ground for generations—were simply baked by days of scorching sun stretching north of 40 degrees Celsius. If you lose a harvest, it’s bad for a year, but if you lose the plants, you’re suddenly looking at five or 10 years of setbacks.

I didn’t grow up in a farming family, but as the CEO of an agtech company, I’ve come to know farmers on an intimate level. I can tell you, they are resourceful people—many who have been chosen to carry on a multigenerational business. There’s both a privilege and a pressure that comes with that. These farmers feel a pull between respecting tradition and keeping operations viable for future generations.

That pressure has only increased with the uptick of climate change. As we experience the devastation of heatwaves, wildfires, and widespread drought, it’s becoming clear 2021 is the year we must accept we cannot continue to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.

We must adapt and respond.

Tipping point is now

Hot has become hotter. Extreme has become more extreme. But rare has become more common. According to the United Nations, extreme weather events nearly doubled worldwide from 2000 to 2019, compared to the 20 years previous. The cumulative devastation resulted in 1.23 million lives lost and nearly $3 trillion in global economic losses.

Climate change threatens every aspect of our lives. For farmers, there’s the short-term pain caused by unpredictable weather events such as the extended drought that has caused havoc in the United States. There’s also long-term pain: planning for an uncertain future and dealing with the existential threat of what is to come.

Extensive modeling shows farmers will have to make major adaptations to their crops by 2050, as the climate shifts growing conditions and seasons around the world. India and China will lose arable land as the global population climbs towards 9 billion and farmland is more in demand than ever. We’re already seeing this at home — farmers I’ve spoken to are considering moving to other areas, even new provinces, in search of more suitable land. They’re faced with leaving behind decades-old farms, with equity tied up in the land, to find new places to grow.

The good news is, while we can debate whether or not we’ve reached a point of no return on climate change, we’ve irrefutably reached a tipping point on agricultural technology. And it’s for the best.

Agtech is no longer nice-to-have, but a need-to-have

Farmers used to look to agtech to improve operations. From the first milking robots to self-driving tractors and indoor farming modules, it was about increasing productivity and adding much-needed convenience. But this year alone, the stakes have changed. Farmers are faced with adopting technology not to supplement their farms, but to save them.

Take Michael Rigby, for example. He’s a Stetson-wearing, denim-clad cattle rancher in central Utah. Ranching is in his blood, but in the midst of the catastrophic drought sweeping much of the United States this year, he faced a crushing realization: if he didn’t change how he fed his cattle, they would either starve or need to be sold off to survive. Rigby made a choice to invest in indoor growing modules, allowing him to grow fresh livestock feed with 90% less water than traditional methods – that’s a tenth of the water used in traditional livestock feed irrigated in the field.“This [technology] just saved our farm,” he told me. “The severe drought had us worried we wouldn’t be able to feed our herd.”

Luckily for farmers like Rigby, technology has come a long way in recent years, in large part to a 900% increase in funding for agtech companies between 2013 and 2019. These investments have improved indoor growing and precision agriculture, and brought us closer to groundbreaking technologies like soil carbon sequestration. All branches of agricultural technology have the same goal — to make farming sustainable and resilient as the climate crisis worsens.

Agtech is still waiting for its Tesla moment—where a giant emerges from the pack to push the industry into the mainstream and forces everyone else to keep up—but those within the industry know the future is here. Farmers know it, too.

We’ve been through a lot these past couple of years. A pandemic that battered supply chains, a drought that’s hampered crops, and back-to-back fire seasons that have caused widespread devastation of farmland. But farmers are among the most resilient people in the world. While climate change will continue to cause problems, this year has shown us farmers will adapt — because they care about the land, they care about consumers, and frankly, there is no other choice.

Dave Dinesen is the chief executive officer of CubicFarms, an agricultural technology company specializing in automated, commercial-scale indoor farming technology.