Opinion

By Bill Greuel

Canada needs to stop being comfortable.

That’s a bold statement, but one I believe to be true if we are going to reach the ambitious targets our agrifood sector aspires to.

We often talk about Canada taking our place atop the podium as the most reliable and preferred supplier of safe, nutritious food. I fully believe that we can get there – and that we deserve to be there – but we won’t get there by doing what we have always done.

If I look to the amazing athletes currently competing at the Tokyo Olympics, I can guarantee that they did not reach the podium by following my fitness routine, or by staying within their boundaries. Instead, they are driven to continuously reach that next level. They do that by taking a holistic approach to optimize their performance – from nutrition, to training, to rest, to mental preparedness, to their own drive – it is not one single element that propels them to the top. It is a well-thought-out combination of activities, undertaken with intent to achieve the goal of standing on the podium.

I believe that Canada’s agrifood sector needs to take a similar approach. And the first step is to stop being comfortable with what we have. No-one reached the top of the podium by staying in their comfort zone.

I am proud of Canada’s agrifood sector, as all Canadians should be. We have accomplished a lot. We have proven to be leaders of innovation, quick to adopt new technology and practices, resilient and resourceful. But if you look at the global stats, we are not where we should we be.

In fact, we haven’t even made the medal round.

Ted Bilyea, on whom I have come to rely for advice and to stretch my thinking recently, put a sobering statistic in front of me a while back. In 1992, as a nation, we imported 15 per cent of our total food value, by 2020, that number has grown to 31 per cent.

Our ingredient and food processing capacity is declining as we are watching the global explosion of plant-based foods, we need a course correction.

From my wheelhouse in the plant-based foods sector, we have set an ambitious target of $25 billion in sales by 2035. To think about that another way, we believe we can supply one of every 10 plant-based meals around the world in less than 15 years. We have heard overwhelming support for this target. The sector is galvanizing around the ambition.

To get there we need to stop being comfortable and we need to stop being happy with “good enough”.

Specifically, we need to:

  • Truly embrace moving past bulk commodity exports. The strength of Canada’s commodity production is the foundation of our agrifood sector and will continue to be. However, we need to stop accepting that Canada can only be a provider of bulk commodities and truly embrace the benefits of value-added production. The benefits are many, but specifically include protection from trade disruptions, a secure domestic supply chain and more money for Canadians. This seems to be a conversation that cycles every few years, but one that we struggle to move past.
  • Use our regulatory system as an economic driver. Not only does our regulatory system have to ensure that we have safe food, but it also needs to be recognized for what it can be – a signal to the world that Canada is a leader in ingredient and food production. If you look to some of our competitors in the plant-based world, such as Singapore, they have signalled that they are supporting innovative solutions for food production with their nimble and responsive regulatory system. They have moved themselves to the top of the podium as the place to invest by being bold. Canada needs to do the same. We need to use our regulatory system to accelerate and enable the development of plant-based foods. If we don’t, we will see companies – and their capital – go elsewhere.
  • We need to work together – this is Team Canada. This is not a national competition in which each province is competing against each other for the national title. This is an international competition, and one we will only win by unifying under the maple leaf. This is about bringing all our strengths from coast-to-coast, from all levels of government and from across the value chain to put Canada atop the podium. The opportunity in front of us is huge – for our entire industry –but we will only win by building a national team and taking a national approach. Individually we’re good. Together we are amazing.
  • It is more than money. This one may seem counterintuitive – and I am not saying continued financial investment into innovation isn’t necessary – it is. But we won’t reach our goal with money alone. Go back to my original analogy and everything an athlete does to get ready for the Olympics: not one element is enough to be the best. Making an investment alone will not put us atop of the podium. We need to consider the many factors – such as our regulatory environment, investment into utilities and transportation, access to talent and capital – to own the podium. Our government partners and industry truly need to work together to create meaningful partnerships to support the growth and transformation of our sector.

One needs to look no further than Canada’s “Own the Podium” program to understand what a coordinated, collaborative approach to excellence can achieve. In 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympics, prior to the program’s inception, Canada earned 17 medals. At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, 14 years after the program was created, Canada earned 29 medals — a 70 per cent increase. So while a comparison to medal counts from a winter Olympics to Canada’s agrifood sector may not be the best contrast – I believe there are lessons we can take from our Olympic athletes – to put us atop the podium.

Be bold. Be ambitious. Be proud. And stop being comfortable.

— Bill Greuel is CEO of Protein Industries Canada. This post first appeared on LinkedIn and is reprinted with permission

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