Farming – solution to economic woes?

The following column I wrote was printed in the Guelph Mercury yesterday.

Agriculture proving its worth in today’s economy

There’s a lot of worrying and hand-wringing going on in Ontario these days about the economic mess we now find ourselves in – and just as much hand-wringing and worrying about how we’re going to pull ourselves back out. But the answer could be right in front of us: farming.

Agriculture has escaped relatively unscathed from all that’s going on so far. That’s not to say we don’t have our own share of troublesome issues that need addressing and sorting out, but on the whole and at the moment, we’re doing ok. After all, everyone needs to eat – both here and elsewhere – and if it’s anything that Canada is good at, it’s providing the world with safe, high quality food.

But I think agriculture can do more and be more than that. Farmers and farming could possibly just be our ticket down the road to recovery. All it takes is for Ontarians to look at agriculture as a source of solutions and innovations, albeit one that goes beyond traditional food production.

We’re already seeing food with benefits on our shelves, like milk and eggs with Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of DHA that can help prevent disease. Many of these nutraceuticals and other innovative food products – like a healthy alternative to the artery-clogging trans fats found in so many of our processed foods – are coming right out of our own University of Guelph, a world leader in food and agricultural sciences.

The recent Agri-Innovation Forum, hosted in Toronto by a few Guelph-based organizations like MaRS Landing and Ontario Agri-Food Technologies who are dedicated to building linkages between agriculture and other sectors such as health, highlighted some of these developments.

But those still involve food. There’s also innovation and opportunity in agriculture beyond the dinner plate.

Stonehedge Bio-Resources is an Ontario company trying to establish markets for industrial hemp but developing a new industry isn’t easy. Without a processing plant, few farmers will grow a crop and without a crop, few investors will put money into processing capacity. But recently, with help from the Ontario government, they’ve received a $2 million boost from a group of investors to start construction on a bio-refining facility in eastern Ontario that will produce things like hemp fibre, wood-like chips and pellets.

In January, the provincial government announced it was providing research funding to three Ontario companies working on new ways to make car parts out of plants. Bumpers and foam for car seats made partially from soybeans are already on the market, and global demand for more eco-friendly products and materials is growing, offering possibilities for farming and manufacturing alike.

A little further down the road is using an enzyme found in soybean hulls, normally a waste or at least low cost by-product of oil extraction, to treat industrial wastewater. It’s still being researched and refined, but how cool would it be to use a renewable resource – soybeans – to clean and allow reuse of one that is not – water?

With support from our governments, our emerging bio-economy – applying agriculture and agricultural products beyond traditional food production – has the potential to lift Ontario out of its economic doldrums. Throughout the past decades, we’ve proven that we’re good at manufacturing here in Ontario; maybe it’s just time to switch our focus to include new and different products.

Agricultural innovation could offer those new opportunities for our beleaguered manufacturing sector. It’s a chance for the government to prove it’s serious about investing in our future in eco-friendly ways. And it can open up new markets for farmers, offering higher value alternatives to traditional commodity crops and decreasing their dependence on government support and disaster relief programs.

Farming is the historic foundation that helped build our province. It can also be a key to assuring and growing our future.

View article on the Guelph Mercury website.

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