Make or break: Canada must clear the data hurdle to be a global food leader

When looking at Canada on the global stage as a leader for safe, sustainable, nutritious, and profitable food to feed the world’s growing population, one expert says we’re on track to be a leader — but the country can also fall behind if action isn’t taken soon.

Dr. Evan Fraser, director at the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph recently spoke at Saskatoon, Sask., at the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s Public Trust Summit.

“I think Canada is perhaps, uniquely well placed to actually address (this),” Fraser says. “Thanks to our huge endowment of water and land and our sophisticated work force and educated farming community, thanks to our infrastructure, thanks to stable markets, and functioning politics, although that may be debatable … I think, thanks to all those things, we can play a very large role in meeting the demand for future food in the next generation and we’ll do well by doing so.”

Fraser says he has his eye on other countries such as Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and Australia who all have stated similar goals in wanting to be the “world’s bread basket for safe and sustainable food.” With this in mind, he says it’s Canada’s opportunity to really shine.

When looking at barriers, he points out two key areas we as Canadians need to be cautious of: data and transparency.

Data can be seen as pretty boring, but, he says, we can harness data to connect with consumers and build trust.

“Ideally, in the future we’ll have farms linked to consumers, through a series of data sets where a farmer can look up the food chain at who’s processing, when they’re processing, how the food’s being moved, and essentially have a very fine grained, real-time chain of custody assessment of the food system,” he says. (article continues below video)

Benefits of having that chain of data can help not only the farm and the producer, but also processors, consumers, and marketers, he says.

“We’ll have that trust in the sector that’s desired and then if things go wrong, it’ll be easy to do callbacks and trace forwards.”

This all sounds great, right? Data scientists have quickly pointed out the interoperability of data and that a supply chain explained like the one above isn’t quite ready yet due to the amount of objects that collect data, and the transferability of that data across all platforms.

Fraser points out a bottleneck when it comes to data transparency. Currently, he says, it’s not clear on who owns the data.

“Right now, it seems to be a small number of corporations, that aren’t particularly transparent, (who) own the data that the farmers and consumers are creating,” he says. “There’s an unclear benefit to the farmers and consumers, that they’re not getting more than they’re giving away.”

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