Why we need to embrace the future of farm-tech

The next agricultural revolution will be digitized. Canada needs to help its farmers buy in.
Mohammed Ashour

Mohammed Ashour is the founder and CEO of Aspire Food Group, an edible-insect farming facility in London, Ontario. He is a past winner of the Hult Prize, a university-level competition aimed at solving the world’s most pressing social issues.

Over the last few years, I started farming crickets—four billion of them. My company, Aspire, which opened a facility in London, Ontario, this spring, is the result of several years spent looking for a solution to global food insecurity. Insects are already widely consumed as a tasty source of nutrition, and few people know that processing bugs uses a fraction of the land and water that other livestock use. The 12 acres that house Aspire would be enough to raise just six cows a year. We’re aiming to produce 12 million kilos of cricket protein in the same amount of time. An operation of this scale could never exist if we hadn’t taken risks on new technologies, and we need to make sure Canadian farmers are in a position to do the same.

Oftentimes, in agriculture, there’s a tension between tradition—the old ways of growing food that are seen as natural—and innovation. In my work, I set out to highlight the relationship between the two. Every wave of the agricultural revolution—from basic hunter-gatherers to early, manual farming to industrialization—was marked by fanfare, yes, but also plenty of skepticism. Across Canada, innovations are once again changing the way we cultivate crops. The Ontario company Mycionics has invented a robotic harvesting system that picks mushrooms based on farmers’ preferences, trims the stems and packages them for the market, reducing the need for seasonal labourers. Last June, Stone Farms in Davidson, Saskatchewan, introduced a machine that scans fields for weeds and diseases using artificial intelligence.

Even if, as a traditional farmer, my corn harvest is suddenly 20 per cent higher than the previous year—and even if I go out of my way to diligently record factors like temperature and rainfall—there are still too many confounding variables to know how to replicate that success. I can’t control the wind or the sun. Every harvest feels like a coin toss. At Aspire, we practise vertical farming, which—in addition to describing how we stack our crickets—involves the use of plenty of software to monitor and modulate growing cycles. Indoors, and with the right tech, we can control pretty much everything: humidity, light intensity, pesticides and pests—not that there will be many.

We have 95,000 bins, each filled with 30,000 newly hatched baby crickets‚ plus all the food, water and resources they’ll need to thrive. Also in the pallet are sensor packets that measure everything from temperature to carbon dioxide levels. Each day, we receive 30 million data points that help us optimize our production from harvest to harvest.

The fundamentals of farming haven’t changed very much in the last 100 years or so. What has to change is the industry’s speed and scale. The global population is expected to pass nine billion by 2050. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that our collective food production will need to increase by 60 per cent to accommodate that growth. This is where Farming 4.0, as it’s been called, comes in—whether facilitated by A.I. or robots or another data-driven software of choice.

There’s a worry that automation will render farmers obsolete, but it actually has the potential to make them far more productive. It’s incredibly urgent that smaller-scale producers—from six-person dairy farms to 50-person broiler-chicken enterprises—are supported during this shift. In 2021, one in every nine jobs was in the agriculture sector, but we don’t have enough workers to fill them: the industry is facing a labour shortage of 114,000 workers by 2025. On top of the labour issues, climate change and real estate development mean that we need to maximize the yields from what viable land we still have. Last year, wildfires and droughts prompted a $20-million bailout for British Columbia farmers. And according to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, urban development removes 175 acres of the province’s farmland on a daily basis. As you can see, efficiency is more valuable than ever.

Canada is one of a handful of countries that’s lucky enough to export more calories than it produces. If we had to rely solely on domestic farmers to survive, we could. But COVID was a wake-up call for many international governments in terms of how much food security is tied to national security. South Korea, for example, has already expressed interest in building a cricket-farming facility just like ours. France, India and China are all now subsidizing technological advancements for their farmers.

The government of Canada is starting to funnel money into automation, but not nearly enough of it. Private-sector investors can fund the creation of the gadgets themselves, but in my opinion, tax dollars are one of the best ways to bolster the country’s agricultural workforce. The government might consider offering every farmer in Canada a subsidy—on an application basis—to put toward the adoption of some helpful (if risky) new tech they’d like to try out.

A financial safety net would allow agriculture workers to monitor their results without having to single-handedly shoulder the huge cost of a lacklustre harvest. In Silicon Valley, the philosophy of “move fast and break things” gives start-ups an advantage. Farmers don’t have the luxury of releasing a quick software update after mistakenly relying on an impressive new autonomous electric tractor to manage their corn. A subsidy would mean they’re not betting the farm, so to speak. The upsides of this kind of arrangement aren’t hypothetical, either. My company has already benefited from government-funded partnerships.

I spend a lot of time thinking, reading and talking about things like alternative proteins, climate change and farming, but I’m also an avid student of history. Not too long ago, corn and cattle farmers were seen as disruptive to communities. Tractors, too. Farming 4.0 is creating displacement, but also opportunities. For example, career entomologists are wading into the development of edible innovations—like cricket protein—and brainstorming new and exciting ways to make those food sources more abundant. Robotics engineers, drone pilots, soil ecologists, you name it: workers from all industries are being unleashed into Canada’s farm fields.

You’ll always have farmers who are early adopters, in the same way that some people line up to buy the newest iPhone. Then there are others who, after 10 generations, still prefer to grow tomatoes the same way. But once the farmer next door embraces tech, it gives them a stronger foothold in the market. We want Canadian farmers to be competitive here and abroad. Agriculture workers have inherited the tremendous emotional responsibility of feeding us and populating grocery shelves with the food we sometimes take for granted. The question isn’t whether farmers will see growth in farming’s fourth wave, but how we can help them do it.

This article appears in print in the November 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $29.99.