Robynne Anderson's Emerging Thoughts on Ag

Respect: Advancing Women in Agriculture

When you think about agriculture and food, women are involved in every aspect.  We represent most of the world’s smallholder farmers, livestock keepers, grocery buyers, and household cooks. So if women are a vast part of every aspect of producing and serving our food, why is there a dearth of them in leadership in agriculture?

Last week, I had the honour of discussing that with 30 great women working in agriculture in Singapore. @WOMAGasia regularly brings together women and men to talk about new issues in agriculture.  This is important because building networks, getting training, and the need for gender equity is a conversation that needs to happen with women and men together.

But on this night, they took the time to have a special, frank conversation about what are the challenges we face in getting women into leadership roles in agriculture. It was cathartic and empowering as we talked about how to get mentors, the challenges of imposter syndrome, and how to deal with work-life balance.  There was great advice from around the table and collectively our insights helped us all think of ways to navigate a male-dominated world.

From time to time it was even a bit depressing as we faced the realities that all of us (me included) had been put in socially inappropriate situations and some #MeToo moments. However, strength comes from numbers and 30 women discussing how to manage these situations certainly left us all with new tools and a wonderful sense of solidarity. As more of us come into leadership roles, I hope we will find the incidence of these problems begin to drop away. In addition, I’ve always found that a great aspect of men in agriculture is that they tend to have grown up on farms and have a strong sense of community and family. They don’t want their daughters in those situations, and they can be an important force for social adjustment in agriculture.

One male farmer was smart enough to raise that we need a daycare service at major farm shows like FarmTech to make it easier for women to attend the meetings. That’s a great idea. As a matter of fact, it was a group of men at Duxton Asset Management who had the idea to host this event in Singapore and sponsored it at Straits Wine Company.

We also need to think about how to proactively engage women in industry conferences, advance them to boards, and recognize their accomplishments. I remain deeply touched by being inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame, but so conscious that there are only 8 women among 210 men.  There is no way this gap reflects the efforts of my mother, my grandmothers, and my great-grandmothers in rural Canada and all the other women who have been the backbone of agriculture.  The fault of this does not lie at the door of men. We, as a society, need to be thinking about recognizing women more often – and we women should be at the front lines of thinking of great female talent to propose. Because, together we are stronger.

Women throughout agriculture can do more to band together and help each other. I hope a new “Old girls’ network” will come to co-exist with the “Old boys’ network” that will be fully diverse and inclusive. I hope that soon we’ll just be people equitably sharing leadership roles. We are half the world’s population and one of these days I hope we will #FilltheGap to become half of agricultural leadership.

Happy International Women’s Day!

More Than Pretty Landscapes: How Canada Stacks Up Globally on Sustainability

Our friends at Real Agriculture took the time to interview me at FarmTech in Alberta.  It is always fun to chat with Shaun, and got to discuss how Canada is doing on sustainable agriculture.  It is particularly important since progress is being made on some global indicators that would allow more consistent and direct comparisons between countries.  I think Canada is going to stack up well.  Canada’s already made lots of progress on soil health through the use of conversation tillage.  Now we need to focus in on improving crop rotations and measures on biodiversity.  It’s great to see people already thinking about intercropping and other solutions to drive us to the next great innovations in agriculture. Onwards to continuous improvement!

Watch the interview here.

What a SuperCluster!

No, I am not swearing at you. Or if I were, it would be to express excitement over the new innovation work in Canada. The Government of Canada set out a challenge to have public, private and academic institutions band together to create new innovations to support Canadian growth and jobs. A great example of blended finance, it asked for proposals that would link whole value chains and reach every corner of the country with exciting synergies of expertise.

Basically, imagine trying to create a Silicon Valley virtually. They are calling it a Supercluster. The five winners were just announced in the areas of:

  • The Ocean Supercluster (based in Atlantic Canada) will use innovation to improve competitiveness in Canada’s ocean-based industries, including fisheries, oil and gas, and clean energy;
  • The SCALE.AI Supercluster (based in Quebec) will make Canada a world-leading exporter by building intelligent supply chains through artificial intelligence and robotics;
  • The Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster (based in Ontario) will connect Canada’s technology strengths to our manufacturing industry to make us a world manufacturing leader in the economy of tomorrow;
  • The Protein Industries Supercluster (based in the Prairies) will make Canada a leading source for plant proteins and help feed the world;
  • The Digital Technology Supercluster (based in British Columbia) will use big data and digital technologies to unlock new potential in important sectors like healthcare, forestry, and manufacturing.

The investment by the Canadian government of nearly $1 billion will be matched dollar for dollar by the private sector, and is expected to create more than 50,000 middle-class jobs and grow Canada’s economy by $50 billion over the next 10 years.

As always, it a is pleasure to see Canada focusing on the fact that innovation comes in many forms. There were several great proposals in agriculture and food and it was a special thrill to see Protein Industries Canada be selected as one of the final five. Sure, it may seem obvious to many that artificial intelligence and robotics would make the cut, but the decision to support food innovation demonstrates that that area of development is an equally important application of technology. An excellent proposal on precision farming was also shortlisted, and is particularly meritorious because Canadian agriculture has always been driven by innovation from seeding through to the final products delivered to consumers. One particular area where Canadian agriculture certainly needs to innovate is value addition.

We have traditionally shipped raw product out of our country. As a result, we are some of the world’s best at sustainable, efficient production of many raw materials, including grains, oilseeds, and meat. The opportunity stands to take greater advantage of this productive capacity. Protein Industries Canada is aimed at substantially increasing global market share in novel protein (and co-products) fractions, ingredients, food and feed products, and technologies.

This consortium involves everything from farmers to multinationals; academic institutions to food processors; crop breeders to marketing groups. And the focus now is on developing the potential of plant-based proteins from pulses, hemp, oats, wheat, canola flax, and other crops for export to the world.

One of the great things is that this is a pan-western effort spanning Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. There are great opportunities across this country, and it is heartening to see investment that will affect rural areas in particular – something that is too often overlooked around the world.

Recently, our prime minister issued a challenge to Canadian agriculture to grow our annual exports to $75 billion by 2025. This will only come through innovation and new technology. The goal is to move Canada to second place in global agricultural exports and fifth in agri-food exports. Specifically, we want to further promote a new range of plant-derived foods, ingredients and feedstuffs of great quality, thereby commanding market premiums.

Innovation in agriculture is the reason why I devote time to being on the boards of Bioenterprise and Protein Industries Canada. They are organisations fostering change and working collaboratively throughout the value chain.

If you want to learn about all the SuperClusters, start here.

And here if you want to learn more about the Protein Supercluster specifically, read this.

I’ve never been so excited to see a cluster!

Follow me for more reflections on agriculture, in Canada and across the world, on Twitter at @Robynne_A

Growing Canada’s New Field of Dreams

This post was originally posted on the Canadian Biomass website.

Feb. 12, 2018 – Canada has always been an agricultural powerhouse, but these days it’s not just about selling prairie wheat, P.E.I. potatoes and maple syrup to the world. Now we’re also building bio-cars from ag-based fibres, composites and foams. We’re creating naturally derived pharmaceuticals and functional foods that help fight disease. We’re cutting carbon emissions by finding valuable uses for agricultural wastes, and we’re boosting agricultural productivity in all kinds of ways.

Recently, our prime minister issued a challenge to Canadian agriculture to grow our annual exports to $75 billion by 2025. This will only come through innovation and new technology. Bioenterprise is a great example of a federal-provincial-private partnership to accelerate that innovation.

Over the last 10 years, the organization’s clients (generally small start-ups) have launched more than 1,000 new products, services and technologies; created thousands of new jobs; and generated over $268 million in revenues. Bioenterprise has also worked closely with 30 companies in helping them secure more than $120 million in investment.

Agri-technology is a sector with huge potential, but it needs scientific and technical expertise, industry knowledge, business services and global connections, to help start-ups commercialize innovations and grow successful businesses.

For example, Energrow enables farmers to process their own oilseeds on farm into fresh, high-quality meal and oil through one of the most reliable, efficient and user-friendly pressing systems on the market.

But innovation alone doesn’t guarantee commercial success. You also need business savvy, industry knowledge, and financial resources to navigate the path to market.

At several points throughout the entrepreneurial journey, Enegrow turned to Bioenterprise for support. The agri-business accelerator helped source market data, established industry connections and provided all-important reality checks.

Today it is great to see the Ontario-based company has 15 dealers across North America and a customer base that Energrow expects to double in the coming year.

Of course, one of the biggest hurdles facing start-ups and established companies alike is financing growth – it’s especially challenging for agri-tech innovators in Canada. Seed funding and funding proposals, as well as connecting clients to investors, are a few ways Bioenterprise is working to address this gap for early-stage companies. But agri-tech is still just a blip on investors’ radars.

For one established Guelph, Ont., company, that seed financing helped them take their business to the next level. Rootham Gourmet Preserves turns Ontario produce into gourmet condiments, sold in local specialty markets and gift stores. Using a grant from Bioenterprise, they were able to expand processing capabilities and launch a highly targeted direct mail campaign engineered by one of Bioenterprise’s corporate partners.

The results were immediate: Rootham gained more than two-dozen new clients in just two months. That boost to business allowed them to expand production, hire more staff and increase the hours of current employees. The grant also helped support product development with Longo’s, a chain of grocery stores across the Greater Toronto Area, leading to a significant contract. The company not only hit their target of doubling gross sales, but they did it in just one year instead of the projected two.

The fact is, Canada has no shortage of promising agri-tech ideas, technologies and products but the big stumbling block is the lack of growth or venture capital. There are few investment firms out there who understand the sector, and even fewer angel investors.

That’s why accelerators like Bioenterprise are needed. There are great inventors, farmers, and food innovators in Canada, we can help them get investment and market ready by providing strategic advice. It’s an area where Canada really excels, creating a co-funded public-private programme, such as Bioenterprise, to help those innovators grow.

Agri-food is a big sector in Canada that represents over 12 per cent of our employment and a big proportion of our trade – a growing proportion if we are to meet this new national target of $75 billion in exports. That goal, and the goal of healthy, diverse diets for Canadians, will be driven by innovation. So from super-clusters to agri-tech accelerators, it is a growing reality that the public and private sectors will be working together to reap the benefits.

Robynne Anderson was recently inducted into the Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame (, one of eight women among 210 men. She is a member of the Bioenterprise board of directors and President of Emerging ag (

Canada’s Agriculture Day 2018

On the occasion of Canada’s 2018 Agriculture Day, which is on February 13th, I want to take time to reflect on some of the incredible work in agriculture that Canadians are accomplishing. It is such a thrill to pause each February 13th and realize that we’ve made incredible progress in just the past year, and that sensation of admiration and optimism is only multiplied when we compare where we are now to where we were five, ten, and fifty years ago.

One of the many events going on over the course of the Ag Day is this celebration in Ottawa. While I can’t be there in person, I think that the existence and structure of this event encapsulates so much of what is going right in Canada right now. Their speakers include cattle ranchers, food processors, retailers, producers of pulses and grain staples, turkey and chicken farmers, elected officials, authors, representatives of national and multinational organizations, communications experts, and more. Half of their featured speakers are women. They have a great diversity of ages, experiences, and perspectives. Beyond the science of agriculture – about which there is much deserved praise to be given – I think that this collaborative spirit, where very different people from many parts of the food come together, is one of the most compelling element of Canada’s Ag Day 2018. 

Another element of Ag Day that encourages me – even given sobering statistics about worldwide hunger and malnutrition, which are tragically again on the rise after years of successfully lowering them – is how what is happening in Canada links up with larger international and global goals. We all know about the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 aspirations for the world’s future. Covering topics from ending poverty and empowering women and girls to building resilient infrastructure and halting biodiversity loss, these goals are both ambitious and complicated.

For people in the ag world, SDG2 is the most immediately relevant: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” Of course, no matter how much we would love to be able to simplify our issues, no goal is going to be solved in isolation. This is why I think it is so inspiring that here in Canada we are getting better and better each year at understanding how agriculture links up with supporting rural communities, giving our young people the best possible education, protecting our natural environment, and incentivizing sustainable cities, among so many other initiatives. Recent studies have shown that our soil is less vulnerable to erosion now that it was ten years ago, largely thanks to the shift away from intensive tillage in the Prairie region, and that, since 1981, our nationwide biodiversity has shown steady improvements.

(As a technical aside for those not intimately familiar with the SDGs: Within each goal are targets. Of particular interest to those of us in agriculture is Target 4, which states, “by 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, and that progressively improve land and soil quality.” Below the Targets are indicators, an even more granular level of analysis; Indicator 2.4.1 is where we find the Landscape Heterogeneity Sub-Indicator, a measure of biodiversity in the context of farms.)

A huge amount of work remains before us, however. Though Canada’s agricultural lands show lower levels of nitrogen in the soil than the global average, our trends show a troubling rise over the years. The last four decades have seen a dramatic rise in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among Canadians; at the same time, food waste and loss remain a critically important problem that cost our economy as much as $31 billion per year. Plus, even if we were to work our way towards a flawless agricultural cycle here at home, I doubt that most of us would rest until we had done everything possible to continue fighting hunger and malnutrition elsewhere in the world, whether that means exporting agricultural products, creating robust knowledge-sharing networks, or using our expertise to build capacity elsewhere.

Finally, I want to express personal gratitude that Ag More Than Ever is doing such good work. In addition to organizing the Canada’s Agriculture Day Ottawa, they work year-round to change the way that people think and talk about agriculture. I have worked in communication, public affairs, and issues management for many years, and I know that, quite often, the way an issue is communicated to and perceived by the public is as important as the core of the issue itself. Ag More Than Ever is doing an amazing job turning farmers, as well as many other diverse members of the food system, into agvocates who tell the industry’s story in ways that are truthful, respectful, and compelling.

I hope you will take time today to learn something new about agriculture in Canada, to thank someone doing good work in our food system – be it a farmer, retailer, or friend whose cooking you love – or to reflect on how you are going to contribute to an improved food future for all. Happy Ag Day!