Industry Spotlight: Agritech

Photo via My Green Space.

This article is Part Six of our series covering the top tech sectors in British Columbia. This week’s topic is agricultural technology (agritech).

“It’s probably one of the most exciting times in history to be involved in agriculture.”

Mike Manion, Program Manager at the Sumas Regional Consortium for High Tech (SRCTec), sees a turning point in the farming sector. Consumers are paying more attention to animal welfare and chemical-free agriculture. The changing climate has led to droughts that, without industry adjustment, will mean higher food prices. And to meet these new demands, technology is moving at a rapid pace.

SRCTec, a BC Acceleration Network partner based in Mission, helps agricultural technology (agritech) companies build their business. We chatted with Manion about the evolving sector, and some standout trends.

Agriculture is a consumer-driven market. Over the last 50 years, we’ve seen an increased demand for cheap food that’s only possible produced on a large scale, Manion explains. More recently, though, the consumer’s values have shifted.

“What we’re seeing now is a recognition by the consumer that they don’t like intensive farming. They don’t like the scale of farms and they see animal welfare as being compromised. Now there’s a demonstrated consumer willingness to pay more to facilitate changes to animal welfare.”

Returning to a more traditional farming system won’t be easy, given the different environmental conditions and growing population. Forward-thinking innovation will be necessary in order to help agriculture get back to its roots. Manion describes one example: an “agbot” (agricultural robot) controls weeds by simply moving through the fields and stamping them out. This removes the need for herbicides.

Automated agriculture

Precision agriculture also makes farming more efficient, by integrating detailed data collection with automated technology. Geo-mapping and soil analysis provide acute understanding of the fields. Then, “smart planters” analyze data to determine the fields’ needs. So, if the field needs an increase or decrease in nitrogen, the smart planter will automatically adjust it. This “increases crop production and reduces costs”, says Manion, in addition to mitigating potential excess nitrogen run-off.

Automated technology has also been effective with other resources. “In the past we’ve thought Canada had an unlimited supply of water, and as such we’ve had some rather sloppy practices”, says Manion. “Now, with the increasing scrutiny on water practices, we actually have sensors in the field that say, ‘Hey, I’ve got enough water’, and shut off that particular irrigator.”

“A tsunami of food prices”

Even with these innovations though, Manion notes that changing climate will affect food prices. The drought in BC over the last summer—and the ongoing drought in California—are certainly an indication of that.

“We are on the cusp of a tsunami of food prices that will demand that people reconsider their food, where it comes from and how to reduce the costs.

“If technology meets the demand to produce drought-resistant crops in a timely manner, then maybe we’ll avoid a huge jump in the price of food. Otherwise, if we stick with conventional means, the price of food is going to go up drastically”, he says.

Manion has seen a growth in urban farming—and technology that supports it—in response. My Green Space is an app that provides tutorials and notifications to help the average urban gardener. Alerts let you know when it’s time to plant, maintain and harvest your garden.

“It’s an app that really teaches the home gardener how to produce something of significance. Since I’ve seen that I’m starting to become a believer in urban gardening”, says Manion.

Rising agritech companies in BC

Ecoation

Ecoation is part of the automation revolution in agriculture. The company provides a monitoring and sensory controls system for horticulture, and other biotech sectors.

BW GLOBAL

BW GLOBAL makes greenhouses using proven technology and advanced designs. They build their greenhouses with high-quality materials, so the structures will withstand weather conditions.

My Green Space

The company helps urban gardeners plan their plots. My Green Space gives advice on plant selection, buying the right products, maintenance and harvesting.

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