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Bill WhitelawThe Smart Agri-Food Supercluster is one of nine groups awaiting word from the federal government on whether it will share in the $950-million innovation supercluster fund established earlier this year. It’s conducting innovation community meetings across Canada to help the sector understand its economic, environmental,  job creation and innovation impact.)

How big is your innovation ecosystem?

For the Smart Agri-Food Supercluster (SASC), it’s big. Very big. Some 135 million acres, in fact.

SASC’s ecosystem stretches across Canada. It’s composed of farms and ranches, large and small, complemented by farms and facilities operated by research organizations and post-secondary institutions.

That’s the landmass SASC has assembled as part of its effort to build a pan-Canadian platform as a catalyst for innovation in Canada’s agri-food value chain. The fields are linked by a diverse array of more than 100 companies, large and small, in some way connected to agri-food. Those companies have committed millions of dollars to match federal funding. More companies are signalling daily they want to join SASC and its network of research organizations and post-secondary institutions.

But physical fields are only part of the equation – and the overall ecosystem.

SASC should also be viewed as a critical catalyst for the way the country’s original innovation system – the farm – is supercharged to take advantage of the fact Canada is among only a handful of countries capable of producing and exporting more food – raw and valued-added.

To do so, though, requires synchronizing the value chain’s various links to ensure they function more inter-dependently, through better planning and communication, as well as targeted innovation investment.

To be a key link in feeding a hungry world, an agri-food sector ecosystem that already functions reasonably well will need a new mechanism to achieve escape velocity from its current limitations (and often inertia). One limitation is that the parts work fairly well but not as synchronously as they might as part of a larger whole.

SASC is positioned to be that mechanism.

Take protein. Growth in many Asian countries, for example, is creating all sorts of new markets for products Canada already supplies.

Demand for protein, plant and animal, fits squarely into that growth – and Canada has protein power aplenty. SASC projects will focus on both types, but a recent sustainable livestock session held to connect to SASC’s growing stakeholder community provides useful insight into how existing innovation can be supercharged.

Four beef-sector case studies illustrate how SASC can magnify and amplify their impact:

  • Innovation and technology adoption accelerator: The concept, proposed by the Beef Cattle Research Council, is to more effectively co-ordinate the diverse advisory services available to beef producers. This would mean less technology transfer fragmentation, and would encourage more rapid and universal adoption of game-changing innovations and business practices. 
  • Canadian Beef Improvement Network: Genetics are important to producing good beef and enhancing the sector’s overall effectiveness. While a small number of producers use genetics in their growing strategies, there’s potential to increase that and decrease the sector’s overall environmental impact.
  • Export market development: There are opportunities in Asia to tap into burgeoning demand – particularly where Canadian beef is highly valued. One Alberta company is promoting a “luxury brand” of beef, designed to tap into Chinese appetite for an increasingly broad range of designer products, including food.
  • Beef supply chain accelerator: Canada’s beef sector supply chain needs fine tuning in order to meet future demand. The Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot tracks animals through the system in a way that links producers directly to multiple end users.

Protein is a critical element of SASC’s mandate, fitted into strategies that provide environmental sustainability and position Canada as a continued a global agri-food leader.

That’s what you can do when you have 135 million acres at your disposal.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group. He is a member of the SASC transition board and EVP of Weather Innovations, one of the SASC supporting companies.

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