Top 5 ag news stories of 2008

Agricultural stories made headlines in 2008 in Canada’s national newspapers and television stations, not to mention the agri-trades that have had their pick of newsworthy topics. It can be overwhelming at times to sift through the barrage of information and opinions available to us. The new year is an ideal time to reflect on some of the biggest news stories from the past year and consider what can be learned for the year ahead. Here are five of the top stories we’ve seen from 2008 and some ideas on what they might mean for you in 2009.

1. Feeding the World

The human population rises by approximately 70 million each year. As the world population surges forward, so does the need for increased food production.

In 2008, we heard frequently about starving populations and the need to increase food supplies in areas of the world that face shortages. In particular, the focus has been on the ability of Canadian farmers to produce enough food to feed the world. This is sure to remain an important issue for Canada in the year (and years) ahead. In fact, Canada is the most politically stable country of the existing five (including Russia, Ukraine, Argentina and Brazil) with the potential to substantially increase agricultural production. Successful and sustainable production is clearly in everyone’s best interest, and the choices we make, including the technology we use and the farming practices we uphold, can have a very real impact on our ability to produce food. Technology, knowledge, crop protection products, yield increases and partnerships — all these things may serve as valuable tools in the year ahead as Canadian producers work hard to run profitable, sustainable businesses.

2. Commodity Prices

While not without its challenges, 2008 has been a bumper year for many growers, thanks to a surge in many commodity prices. This generated considerable media speculation as to just how high some of the prices would climb. Then the climate changed quickly from one of excitement to one of uncertainty. Agricultural publications and mainstream media alike have reported steadily on the economy for the past several months, sharing a sense of concern around commodity prices and credit availability. No matter the marketing choices you make, focusing on yield may be the most important factor in getting profit from your farm — and the only one you can control. We can’t control prices but we can make sure we’ve done everything possible to get the best from our farm. Similarly, smart business decisions and strong partnerships are more important than ever, so I encourage producers to take the time to develop those relationships, brush up on their reading, and take advantage of the learning opportunities that come their way.

3. Biofuels

Mainstream media in particular debated whether increased production of biofuels could be blamed for rising food costs. Some reports suggested that farmers are obligated to produce food to feed people (as opposed to corn for fuel) and biofuels were presented as “immoral” and “irresponsible” given the starving populations. Much of the agricultural media presented alternative viewpoints on the issue, but there remained a sense of uncertainty about Canada’s role in biofuel production, and what that will mean to the Canadian corn producer in particular. In our opinion, biofuels are here to stay and we will continue to find more economical and energy-efficient means to produce them. For example, the Canadian canola industry believes a production goal of 1.5 billion litres of biodiesel from 2.5 million tonnes of canola in 2015 is achievable. This will have benefits along the canola value chain. The Canadian canola industry’s optimism is supported by the experience with rapeseed-based biodiesel in Germany. In 2002, over 189 million litres of biodiesel was sold in Germany and a macroeconomic evaluation demonstrated significant direct, indirect and value chain impacts, including new jobs and employment income. In the next year, it could be quite exciting to watch what new developments are made in terms of biofuels and energy production.

4. Input costs

One of the key issues in the past year for producers has been high input costs, seen mainly through the rising price of fuel and increasing fertilizer prices. A number of agricultural media have explored the impact on rising costs on producers of all sorts, ranging from growers to dairy farmers. Rampant speculation followed by the global economic crisis has resulted in unprecedented market volatility, particularly in relation to oil and fertilizer prices. Prices fell after much of this reporting, but it is impossible to anticipate what these costs, and others, will look like in the year ahead. As a result, the emphasis this year must be on smart and efficient practices both on and off the farm, and doing everything possible to increase yield and get the best value from every single plant.

5. Youth and agriculture

It’s no secret that from coast to coast, Canada’s farming population is, in general, aging. Many news stories in the past year explored concerns for the future of agriculture given the difficulty to recruit young people into the industry, and in particular, encourage young people to stay on the farm and continue the business of farming. With commodity prices rising, some media reported a renewed interest among young people, spotting younger attendees at agricultural conferences and events. We have noticed that more young people were involved in things like making purchase decisions and scouting fields. There is no doubt that encouraging young people to explore careers in agriculture is important. At Syngenta, this is something we regularly support, including the 30 Horizon scholarships we provided this year to youth involved in agricultural education. If Canada is to strengthen and protect our agricultural industry, then it’s vital we find new ways of encouraging young people and offering Generation Y the opportunities — and profits — they require to get involved in the industry and help the country achieve long-term agricultural success.

Greg Jowett heads the Western Business Region for Syngenta Crop Protection Canada, Inc.

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