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North American Agriculture’s Role in Meeting the Global Food Insecurity Challenge – US-Canada Summit

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If there’s one industry that’s shown its resilience over the last three years, it’s agriculture. While food has made it to store shelves during supply-chain-induced disruptions and more than a year-long tragic war in Ukraine that has wreaked havoc on key agricultural markets, there’s still plenty of work to do to combat the food insecurity crisis impacting all corners of the globe.

On April 4, a panel of agriculture experts came together at the US-Canada Summit, hosted by BMO and the Eurasia Group, to talk about some of the successes and challenges facing North America’s food industry. The discussion, Hunger Pains – The Future of Food and Agriculture in North America, was led by Shari Friedman, Managing Director of Climate and Sustainability at the Eurasia Group, and featured David MacLennan, Executive Chair at Cargill, Ken Seitz, President and CEO at Nutrien Ltd., and Ertharin Cousin, CEO and Founder of Food Systems for the Future, a nutrition impact investment fund, and a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

Ertharin Cousin, who from 2012 to 2017 was Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme, said that as well as the sector functioned during COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, 843 million people are still food insecure, while 3.1 billion people can’t afford a diverse and nutritious diet. “We got food around the globe, and we had access to the right fertilizer, but the challenge with our food system is that while it’s efficient, it’s not agile,” she said. “That lack of agility in our food system resulted in the poorest and most vulnerable people in our own countries as well as in developing countries (not having) access to affordable nutritious food.”

These issues, which also include 150 million chronically malnourished children, didn’t start with the pandemic or the war, she said, but they were “highlighted, illuminated and underscored. With the invasion in Ukraine, those challenges began to reach a tipping point.”

As a fertilizer producer and distributor, Ken Seitz’s Nutrien has a significant role to play in combating world hunger. He pointed out that 8% of the world’s population will experience a food catastrophe by 2030. The last year hasn’t been kind to Seitz’s industry, with Russian and Belarusian exports of potash, a key ingredient in fertilizer, down significantly over the past year, while rising costs of natural gas forced several European nitrogen plants to shut down (natural gas is a key input in nitrogen fertilizer).

Fortunately, production in the U.S. and Canada increased, with Nutrien expanding its own output in Saskatchewan. “There are real global challenges here, but North America is uniquely positioned to step up supply into some of the other bread baskets of the world that are going to be called upon to meet these food security challenges,” he said.

Demand for Fuel and Food

Complicating matters is the increasing demand for biofuels, which are being used by the aviation and shipping industries, among other sectors, to reduce their carbon emissions. The use of crops to create biofuels is “one of the most interesting issues in food and agriculture today,” said David MacLennan.

However, the concern over whether crops should go to food or fuel isn’t a new one, he noted, pointing out that a similar discussion happened 20 years ago when ethanol was first used in gasoline. Fortunately, the choice isn’t either or, as oil seeds, food waste and tallow – a by-product of the meat industry, which Cargill produces – can also be converted into transportation fuels. At the same time, technological advances should increase crop production. “Through innovation, we will be able to do both,” he said.

Still, with crop demand rising from both humans and industry, the agriculture sector will need to find new products to plant and new sources of capital. Cargill, for instance, is increasing its investment in canola production, which provides fuel and food. More venture capital money is also flowing into agriculture companies that are finding ways to increase production, said MacLennan, while innovations such as regenerative agriculture are also being used to enhance output. “It’s not food or fuel – it’s going to be both,” he explained. “We’re already seeing that happen and there’s a lot of capital and a lot of crops shifting in that direction.”

For Cousin, balancing the demand for food and fuel – and feedstock and fiber, she added – is a concern. “How do we ensure that our agricultural production for food is enough to address the challenges in accessing a more diverse diet? How are our subsidies supporting the production of the work? Are the investments necessary to make all of our agricultural systems more productive and to increase the quality and quantity of our yields? All of these tools need to be brought online and at a scale that supports more effective agricultural production and production that is more sustainable.”

Pitch to Policymakers

Before Shari Friedman wrapped the panel, she asked everyone to name an area policymakers should focus on to improve the agricultural supply chain and help feed the world.

MacLennan said trade, praising the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), but adding that trade can still be improved. “Let’s never weaponize food, as it has been done in the recent past, but enhance and support USMCA,” he said.

Seitz would like to see infrastructure improve, especially anything that relates to moving commodities from one place to another. “These are bulk commodities that need to move around in vast volumes very quickly,” he said. “Infrastructure investments are the lifeblood of agriculture on this continent, and the quality of that infrastructure is directly correlated to our ability to continue to grow food.”

For Cousin, it’s a rethinking of the subsidy regime. Many of the challenges the industry faces today are a result of incentives that “subsidize the problems,” she said. Instead, “subsidies must catalyze farmers’ behavior to support regenerative agriculture to support the diversity of crops that are necessary to ensure access to more affordable, nutritious diets.”


Captured in photo (L-R): Ertharin Cousin, CEO and Founder of Food Systems for the Future and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture; Ken Seitz, President and CEO at Nutrien Ltd.

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