Agri-food innovation for a sustainable workforce

These last few years of the pandemic have impacted the world economy, redefining the way we all work. And the agri-business industry was no exception. The need for on-site labour is a major obstacle to the economic development of the manufacturing sector, which needs to grow by 50% to meet agricultural demand by 2030, according to the Agri-Food Interim Report 

The labour shortage comes with serious implications. According to a survey of Manufacturiers et Exportateurs du Québec (MEQ), 98.5% of manufacturing businesses surveyed are in need of labour and 49% have had to refuse contracts or pay penalties for production delays.  

As the high school graduation rate of individuals ages 25 to 44 in Québec increased 42% to 80% between 1990 and 2020, finding experienced employees for non-specialized jobs has become increasingly complex.  

Market pressures also create a need for new solutions to make the agri-food industry more competitive. 

Inadequate solutions 

When facing a labour shortage, it can seem logical to want to hire more workers. However, the agri-food sector holds limited appeal for increasingly educated young people. Given that the jobs affected by the labour shortage do not require degrees, the most promising solution would appear to be hiring temporary workers from abroad. This represents a large number of individuals who are qualified and looking to work in Canada. Nevertheless, the arrival of workers has been slowed by health measures. Despite planning to improve access to permanent residence status in 2022–2023, the shared immigration authority of the federal and provincial governments adds uncertainty to the influx of foreign workers.  

As for employee retention, there are plans to offer better salaries, increased benefits and more flexible schedules. Although such plans help retain employees and keep companies competitive, the losses already incurred mean these solutions are only effective in the short term.  

The root of the problem remains unaddressed: difficult work conditions. Instead of trying to adjust the cost-benefit ratio to increase the appeal of the agri-food industry to potential employees, why not offload the difficulty of these conditions onto technology? Technology doesn’t care about tough conditions and carries out many tasks faster and more accurately than its human counterparts. Digital transformation could therefore lessen how much companies depend on human labour while providing value-added employment for individuals. This reasoning is gaining ground in the industry: 55% of companies in Québec’s manufacturing sector believe that emerging 4.0 technology can help with labour scarcity, according to a Léger survey for Économie et Innovation Québec (EIQ).  

Not only could technology solve the agri-food industry’s labour shortage problem, it could do so while also boosting productivity and competitiveness.  

Download the agri-food industry outlook to identify all sectoral issues and anticipate the solutions. 

Technology drives competitiveness 

Among the companies surveyed, the expected long-term impact of 4.0 technologies comes alongside hopes to increase the use of digital technologies in processes related to production (64%) and management (60%). Most manufacturing companies in Québec, including those in agri-food, are therefore investing in digital transformation initiatives.  

While people play an essential role in agri-food, artificial intelligence (AI) and production automation offer a range of ways to support employees. These two innovations have the combined effect of simulating human behaviour for tasks that are repetitive and exhausting for employees while reducing shutdowns by 70%, according to Conure. Productivity is thus significantly boosted.  

The Internet of things (IoT) is a network of connected physical objects that share their data through a cloud platform without human intervention. The agri-food sector is the ideal environment for it. The IoT effectively optimizes data sharing in addition to ensuring a safer work environment with smart watches and hard hats. IoT sensors also facilitate inspections and optimize machine operations with predictive maintenance. This lets employees concentrate on their value-added tasks rather than the status of the machines. The IoT is one of many innovative technological solutions for working around the labour shortage in agri-food.  

Digital transformation is not limited to production. A wide range of algorithms assist operations in corporate management, product design, supply and logistics. This includes integrated ERP management systems, which are used by 58% of companies surveyed by EIQ, computer-aided design applications (52%), supply chain management systems (37%) and warehouse management systems (28%).  

By integrating advanced technology throughout a company’s value chain, businesses can address problems like labour shortages while also fostering a culture of innovation, in turn increasing competitiveness and business resilience. It offers substantial benefits for the organization:  

  • 90% increase in productivity 
  • 100% improvement in speed to market 
  • 50% boost in energy efficiency 

Digital transformation in agri-food is increasingly widespread as it achieves concrete results that address the labour shortage and boost production efficiency. 

Case study: Patates Dolbec, OCTAS award winner for innovation 

A Québec leader in potato farming, Patates Dolbec is now a pioneer in agri-food technological innovation. The company won the OCTAS award for innovation and disruption for integrating AI into its product quality control. By investing $12 million a new factory with AI-powered quality control, Patates Dolbec has helped their workers concentrate on value-added tasks. The company’s modernization has also helped them avoid the impacts of the agri-food industry’s labour shortage. 

Integrating AI in quality control brings clear added value to the existing workforce and has made the company much more efficient. More specifically, their 30% error rate using an optical sorter fell to 5% with AI, representing a 25% increase in efficiency. This investment has allowed them to avoid significant losses in potatoes and revenues while also revitalizing their workforce. 

Patates Dolbec’s digital transformation required computerizing everything that could be computerized to simplify their processes.  

Automation, digitization and other technologies have become key to keeping the Canadian agri-food industry competitive.   

Partner with the right people for your digital transformation 

Technological transformation is essential for agri-food businesses to survive the industry’s unprecedented disruptions. Many companies like Patates Dolbec have already allotted human and financial resources toward these technologies to ensure their company’s long-term success. 

The transformational process is one that’s done across all departments by a multidisciplinary team. We do not adopt a sequential, siloed transformation. Instead, we apply a holistic approach that brings all expertise types together from the start, providing a value-added consulting service. 

Download the agri-food industry outlook to identify all sectoral issues and anticipate the solutions. 

Published on 17.11.2022