Ontario drops $35 million to bolster food automation and address labour gaps
TORONTO — Ontarians will eat more food grown and processed in the province 10 years from now, if all goes according to plan.
The Ford government’s newly released ‘Grow Ontario’ strategy intends to boost the consumption and production of Ontario food 30 % by 2032. The plan also envisions a 10 % increase in food and beverage manufacturing and an 8 % increase in Ontario’s agri-food exports.
It’s all about bolstering a vulnerable provincial agri-food sector buffeted in recent years by labour shortages, outdated supply chain infrastructure and declining processing capacity. Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Lisa Thompson said the strategy will “make sure the province’s food supply chain remains safe, strong and stable from farm to fork.”
As key parts of the effort, the province will fund technological upgrades within the sector, and try to increase agri-food employment by 10 % with measures to attract people into the industry.
While laudable, the workforce target is a “tough” one, suggested Al Mussell, research lead at Agri-Food Economic Systems. He suggested the goal was really about filling the already open positions in the sector, and he cast the challenge as deep and longstanding.
“In agriculture, we’ve been putting people out of work for 100 years. It’s called progress,” Mussel said, adding that Canadians, “by and large, don’t want jobs like that.”
Even so, the government “demonstrated a lot of awareness,” he said, by acknowledging the sector’s need to “compete for talent” — not just for frontline workers but also for those with degrees in the science, technology, engineering and medical fields. “If you can pull those people into agriculture … you’ve really done something.”
Increasing Ontario’s food exports by 8 % by 2032 would be “easy,” Mussell suggested. Much more difficult to achieve, he added, is the government’s intended 10 % increase in processed food and beverage production. Drawing private sector investment into Ontario food processing “has been a real source of frustration,” he said, pointing to the small size of the Canadian market as a fundamental problem that steers investors south of the border. “I think we underestimate the challenge.”
Overall, the Grow Ontario strategy struck him as driven by today’s “very realistic worry” about ensuring food supply and avoiding scarcity — and a stark contrast from the 1960s when the province released a report on the challenges of overly plentiful food production.
The National Farmers Union of Ontario expressed support for the upped food production goal but criticized the new plan for “primarily benefiting large-scale producers and retailers.”
Millions of taxpayer dollars will go into the effort. The province will spend $10 million through the Food Security and Supply Chain Fund on grants to improve food processors’ technology, including automation equipment to address labour gaps. That’s on top of the $25 million Strategic Agri-Food Processing Fund the province is already pumping into the sector.
The plan also calls for a couple of laws to be updated: Consultations are promised on modernizing the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario Act — to provide more relevant research information to farmers and agri-food businesses — and the Veterinarians Act — to increase farmers’ access to veterinary care.
Rollout of the strategy precedes a planned Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs trade mission to Japan and Vietnam in February 2023.