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Canadian food security is an everyone issue, says cranberry producer

Peter Dhillon of Richberry Group talks innovation and food soverignty during 2023 Arrell Food Summit
Rene Van Acker (left), interim vice-president of research at the University of Guelph, and Peter Dhillon, president-CEO of Richberry Group, discuss the challenges and opportunities of bringing agri-food innovations to the market during the 2023 Arrell Food Summit.

Peter Dhillon believes Canada’s food system needs a jumpstart.

Global food production has changed dramatically since his years growing up on his family’s farm. And now, in his role as president and CEO of the cranberry producer Richberry Group, he has even greater insight into how geopolitical issues and climate change are wreaking havoc on Canada’s food security.

India, the world’s largest producer of rice, has banned global rice exports, he said, and Thailand and Vietnam are considering following suit. California, meanwhile, is thinking about implementing rules around exporting food because of that state’s lack of water.

All the while, the global population is growing, but the rate of food production in Canada continues to shrink, leaving the country more reliant on food imports.

This, Dhillon said, should be our wakeup call.

“This isn't your problem. This isn't my problem,” Dhillon said during the Arrell Food Summit, hosted by the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute on Nov. 14.

“This is our problem, and we need to start solving it.”

Based in Richmond, B.C., Richberry Group is one of Canada’s largest growers of cranberries for Ocean Spray, which produces a range of juices, sauces and fresh berries. Dhillon is the second generation of his family to lead the business, which began in 1978 and has grown to encompass more than 1,000 acres of cranberries in B.C. and Quebec.

Dhillon, who sits on the board of directors of the Bank of Canada, believes we’re on the cusp of a food crisis in Canada. And yet, he said, Canadians are still largely ignorant about what goes into keeping their food system going.

With grocery store shelves remaining full most of the time, it’s easy to push the issue of food security out of our minds, he said.

Product shortages of in-demand items during the pandemic did give Canadians a brief taste of what can happen when the supply chain is interrupted and, he cautioned, they need to heed that lesson about food security now, rather than later.

“Everything that's broken in between the farm and the shelf needs to be fixed, because we need to get food at a reliable pace to those shelves so we can feed Canadians,” Dhillon said. “And I don't think we've spent enough time (talking) about scale and process and manufacturing, and what it takes.”

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One of the big problems facing agriculture right now is a lack of labour, Dhillon said.

Many younger generations who grew up in farming families don’t want to succeed their parents in the business, and Canadians, generally, he said, don’t want to work in conventional farming. That’s true across the board, from upper management to people working in the fields.

“I will tell you, if we didn't have the foreign labour program, we wouldn't be having a lot of work for us,” Dhillon said. “It's just that simple.”

With conventional farming on the decline, Dhillon believes indoor farming will play a big part in food production going into the future.

Canada can be on the leading edge of research and innovation in this emerging field, he said, but researchers need two things to make it happen: government support and financing.

In some cases, it’s as simple as government eliminating outdated regulatory policies that restrict innovation. Policies that have worked in the past aren’t necessarily going to work now and in the future, Dhillon said.

So government needs to collaborate with innovators to ensure the regulatory framework is in place to allow the work to happen.

On the financing side, Dhillon said there are investors ready to put their money into food innovation, especially in Canada, whose technology is respected globally. But investors want regulatory certainty and they want a fast return on their investment.

If Canada can provide that, he believes the financing will follow.

“We just need to create a place for that investment to come,” Dhillon said.

“We're a great country. We should be making sure that that capital wants to come to Canada and nowhere else, but unfortunately, the capital is going somewhere else today.”