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Sylvain CharleboisInformation is power. Without data, it’s impossible to operate any business. And at long last, all of the agriculture industry will have access to the information it needs to flourish.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared in December that broadband Internet access in Canada is now considered a basic telecommunications service for all. The CRTC intends to invest over $750 million to support this initiative; billions more will be required by private industry.

In spite of the lack of details contained in the announcement, this is good news for Canadian agriculture and consumers alike.

About 82 percent of Canadian households and businesses now have the high-speed service that the CRTC says is the target. The commission wants 90 percent of Canadians to have that level of service by 2021 and 100 percent of us to be connected within 15 years.

That will narrow the great rural-urban Internet – and information – divide. This could be one of the CRTC’s greatest gift to Canadians.

Most Canadians take the Internet for granted. Only when we are disconnected can we really appreciate how important high-speed Internet is to modern living. In remote areas, the Internet can be choppy simply due to high winds. Even precipitation can slow service down to a point where work becomes impossible.

The CRTC’s focus on broadband Internet access is timely. When Donald Trump’s most outlandish Twitter message can move markets in seconds, farmers need real-time information to keep up.

Closing distances in the rural world is a challenge and that makes communication critical. Thus the need for a more efficient, reliable network.

From holding meetings to sharing data to anticipating the effects of weather – and climate change – access to data underlies almost every business decision. Crop prices and futures are key for farmers.

Finally, the Internet of things (the connection of any device with an on and off switch to the Internet and/or to each other) can become a reality for farmers, allowing them to anticipate future events and tasks. Farmers will have access to an impressive amount of environmental and crop performance data, collected by field sensors and cameras, accumulated by human observations, and recorded via smartphone apps. Farmers will be able to analyze data, filter out worthless information and compute personalized crop recommendations.

Without proper, affordable bandwidth, all of this can be very painstaking, at best.

Farmers are no longer rustic labourers on tractors. They – and their farms – have changed dramatically. Canada loses farms at a yearly rate of seven to nine percent, and that means agricultural operations have become much larger – and smarter. Precision agriculture manages resources more sustainably, lowering the carbon footprint of farms. Adapting production input based on the needs of each animal allows better use of resources to protect the environment, while improving the sustainability of the food supply.

This is already happening. But Canadian farms can become much more efficient, contributing even more meaningfully to global food systems and increasing food sector profitability. Better Internet capacity can only help.

Canadian consumers will also gain. Allowing rural Canada to connect with the rest of the world will help urbanites better understand agriculture. This could be the most significant result of the CRTC’s decision. As farmers gain access to more data, so will city dwellers. The great rural-urban divide can narrow, allowing citizens from both groups to understand each other better.

Over the last century, public discourse about how we support agriculture in Canada has mostly been fuelled by misconceptions and confusion. Data-driven debates can only bring farmers closer to people’s kitchen tables. And better connectivity could lead to better agri-food policies.

Canada still has almost 200,000 farms, including many hobby farms. Access to broadband Internet service could make small-scale farms more efficient and offer better market access. And that could result in more variety for Canadians looking for locally-grown products. 

If rural access to broadband Internet service only accomplishes half of what it’s capable of, Canada will gain. We can only hope this access is affordable for farmers, because they need – and want – the power that information brings.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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