Paul Hoekstra, VP of Strategic Development at Grain Farmers of Ontario, and Bioenterprise SIAC Advisor, discusses Canada’s role in the global food crisis, fertilizers, farming innovations and tech, and opportunities in Canadian agriculture
By Tabitha Caswell for Bioenterprise
In the vast expanse of the agriculture industry, leaders like Paul Hoekstra are paving the way toward a more sustainable future for farming. Through a wide lens, Paul has witnessed the evolution of farming practices in Canada, and here, he shares with us his views about food security, stewardship, and sustainability. Paul also sheds light on issues surrounding fertilizers, and he discusses modern innovation and exciting technology in the ag sector.
A farmer at heart, a scientist by training, and now Vice President of Strategic Development at Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO), Paul shares his journey – a harmonious fusion of passion and knowledge.
Growing from Wholesome Roots
Paul’s story unfolds against a backdrop of an eastern Ontario farm, nurturing a childhood love for the environment and scientific exploration. Raised with an affinity for problem-solving, he harnessed this early passion and moved on to study Environmental Science at the University of Waterloo before eventually earning his PhD in Environmental Biology (Toxicology) from the University of Guelph in 2003.
Through his multifaceted career, Paul has built a strong reputation and a wealth of practical experience from roles in the private sector, consulting, and working with the government, and is now a distinguished member of the Science and Innovation Advisory Committee (SIAC) at Bioenterprise.
Beyond his professional endeavors, Paul finds immense personal satisfaction in translating scientific knowledge simply and meaningfully, for the benefit of everyone. While his work at GFO aims to serve the needs of farmers, it can also, in his own words, “drive food production and food security in a way that’s sustainable – not just for the farmer, but for society as a whole.” In this role, his commitment to bridging science and real-world farming challenges breaches the boundaries of the farm and, for him, it’s a perfect fit.
Navigating Global Food Challenges
There is no denying that the landscape of global agriculture is underpinned by a web of complexity. Paul Hoekstra acknowledges the hurdles posed by population growth, climate shifts, and evolving dietary preferences. “The food crisis is real,” he confirms. Yet amidst this cloud of uncertainty, he says Canada stands tall. “Thankfully, we live in a country that produces an overabundance of safe, affordable, and nutritious food.”
Unlike some corners of the world, and despite increasing costs we see here in grocery stores, Paul says the percentage of disposable income Canadians pay for food remains relatively modest. This statement might come as a surprise for some, but only because we’ve enjoyed the luxury of easy access to resources, making us accustomed to plentiful, and comparatively inexpensive, abundance.
Moreover, Paul points out that Canada plays a vital role in the global food system, using those abundant resources to provide support to other countries that rely on our help. He sees Canada as a potential hub, in a good position to help solve the crisis, and says we can do this by working toward more efficient and sustainable ways to produce food that can benefit both our nation and the rest of the world.
Cultivating Sustainability through Stewardship
What is the difference between stewardship and sustainability? Paul is the person to ask. His evolution through stewardship roles converges with his profound appreciation for the interconnectedness of agriculture technologies. With each technological innovation, a new tool is birthed, each contributing to the overarching umbrella of sustainability. And, to clarify, stewardship is about managing those tools.
“It’s a whole system approach,” Paul explains, aligned with the Seventh Generation Principle – a legacy of the Indigenous peoples, which teaches that intelligent and sound decisions made today should extend at least sevenfold, many generations into the future. He says, “It’s about making sure new technologies are used with responsible intent – for the good of the public and the users of those technologies.”
For Paul, sustainability isn’t just a word; it’s a commitment to responsible use of resources. For instance, in Canada’s efforts to improve soil and climate sustainability, careful management (aka stewardship) of fertilizers plays a crucial role.
Balancing Output with Environmental Impact
Recent months have cast a spotlight on fertilizers, drawing attention to the dance between responsibility and prosperity. With a front-row seat, Paul sheds light on this tangled issue.
“First there was a voluntary initiative put forth by the federal government to find ways to reduce fertilizer emissions,” he says. Paul confirms that fertilizer – nitrogen fertilizer, specifically – causes greenhouse gas and agrees we need to find ways to minimize the loss of fertilizers into the environment.
With a direct line of communication to the farmers of Ontario, Paul knows this is a topic they all care deeply about. He says, “For farmers, the environment is a cornerstone of their family businesses, and one of the three key pillars of sustainability, balanced with social and economic needs.”
The challenge is to reduce fertilizer-based emissions while still growing enough food. Less fertilizer means less production – lean input, lean output. And less production places a direct limitation on the livelihoods of farmers, impacting their ability to feed Canada and the world. This threat triggered major concerns about the repercussions of proposed policy changes amongst the community.
On top of this, the war in Ukraine has affected the fertilizer supply chain. Up front and to the point, Paul states, “Grain Farmers of Ontario is against the war and very supportive of Ukraine.” But it doesn’t dismiss the fact that a high percentage of fertilizer eastern Canadian farmers use is imported from Russia and Belarus, and the Canadian government decided to place a high tariff on fertilizers imported from these countries. Paul notes that Canada was the only G7 country to impose these tariffs on its farmers.
Paul adds that eastern Canada doesn’t produce enough fertilizer to meet its domestic needs. So, impact on supply, coupled with regulations placed on how farmers could use their fertilizers, compounded further by high tariffs, all gave rise to great unease within the sector.
“So, there was great concern that loss of access and high tariffs could affect domestic food security as well as our ability to help feed the world at a time when very large grain markets like Russia and Ukraine weren’t able to produce or export to critical markets,” Paul says.
“Farmers were left wondering how they would grow the best crop on existing farmland, in a sustainable way that helps to feed the world. There were some big question marks for our industry at that time,” he says.
Feeding Soil to Feed the World
We’ve established that fertilizer’s role in food security is paramount. But to truly grasp the full story of how it impacts our food system, we need to rewind and start from the beginning.
First, Paul says, “We know we’re not creating more farmland, but the world is definitely living with a growing population, so it’s important to make sure farmers can grow the most amount of crop and become more efficient on the land we have.” Hence, point #1: maximizing the amounts of yield on existing (and disappearing) farmland is fundamental.
Next, he says, “The correlation between the use of fertilizer and increasing yields has been well documented. There’s no question that without access to fertilizer, we would not be able to produce the food we do today.” Point #2: the more you feed a crop, the more yield it will produce.
And into the future, even as we develop new seed biotechnology, Paul says the new, improved plants will require supplemental energy to produce more and have a higher yield. Point #3: fertilizer will always be a vital factor in the equation.
Looking forward, Paul puts it simply: “Fertilizer is absolutely critical to food security. If we were to lose access to it, we’d be going backwards.”
Leaving a Legacy in Soil
For those of us outside of, and unacquainted with, agriculture, Paul wants us to know that farmers see their farms as entities, as something they intend to pass along for generations. He expresses how tirelessly farming families work to manage their soil’s health in a system-wide approach, and fertilizer is just one component of that system.
“Farmers look at soil health from a holistic perspective. Healthy soil is critical for future generations of farmers. In fact, many have adopted better farming practices over time that are very beneficial to soil health – like using cover crops and no-till methods that avoid soil disturbances – and the use rates of pesticides have gone down dramatically over the years. They’ve also found ways to optimize and manage fertilizer use, to find that sweet spot where they don’t apply more than what they need,” Paul says.
Unquestionably, soil and soil health are integral for a long-term goal of sustainable farming practices and the continued production of high-yield, high-quality food.
Nurturing Research and Innovation
Paul reports that adoption of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices – using fertilizers at the right rate, in the right place, at the right time, from the right source – is on the rise and facilitated through the use of precision agriculture technology.
Everything from satellite imagery to drones and sensors assist with collecting data, and having these tools at the farmers’ fingertips is highly valuable. Additionally, automated equipment gives farmers more control over their fields – Paul predicts that soon Artificial Intelligence (AI) will also impact farming in a positive and exciting way.
Innovations like these are born from sound research, the evergreen compass guiding agricultural progress, and it finds a dedicated advocate in GFO. In an effort to address priorities identified by their farming members, Paul says, “Grain Farmers of Ontario invests $1.85 million farmers-to-dollars into research.” And they look to find ways to leverage that money and grow it via government and industry sources, estimating about $7 to $8 million each year goes into these research programs.
GFO surveys their members and then tailors the focus with the farmer in mind. Paul says, “The process of our extensive research program is something we’re very proud of here at GFO.” And he’s been fortunate to witness progress in motion. Notable advancements in fertilizer technologies appear promising like new coatings, slow-release inhibitors, and new biologicals designed to increase nitrogen uptake by the plant.
Nurturing tech like this extends beyond sterile laboratories, venturing into the rich soils of farms where innovation finds its true home, and driven through hands-on work. Paul says, “There’s a lot of learning and demonstration – trialling new technology on the farm.” He says that when farm-tech is farmer-led, then championed by researchers, it creates an ecosystem here in Ontario that enables innovation; and he loves to see it all come together.
“Canada needs to continue to ensure it is investing in agriculture research,” Paul notes, “and there is an opportunity for Canada to be a global leader in plant science, which could lead to new fields of work and study for Canadians and students from abroad.”
Discovering Opportunities in Agriculture
The scale of Canada’s agriculture industry is staggering, its potential limitless, and Paul paints a jaw-dropping picture. “In the springtime when farmers are out planting their fields, it’s the single largest economic activity that happens in the private sector across Canada at one time. There is no other economic activity to equal it anywhere. In Ontario, agriculture is a $50 billion industry that repeats every single year.” So, to say there are boundless opportunities within the farming sector is an understatement.
Paul has established that the modern agricultural system is one of high-tech innovation – drones, robotics, and satellites. He goes on to say that it encompasses much more than tech. It’s a sector where life sciences, economics, and sociology all come together. Paul says Ontario agriculture is a successful, home-grown, locally empowered success story, and for aspiring entrepreneurs, “if you can find the right solution, agriculture is the place to be.”
If you’re an entrepreneur looking for guidance, Paul advises listening to farmers themselves to identify their needs: define a real problem, then propose a real solution. He says, “Farmers talk to each other, and they know what they need.”
What would Paul do if he had a great idea? He would find farmers – at the coffee shop, in the neighbourhood, in the community – he’d chat them up and engage them to assess the viability of his idea. Communicate and collaborate.
Uniting for Future Harvests
GFO is a member of national organizations like Cereals Canada, Canada Grains Council, and Soy Canada. Paul says, “We don’t do anything in isolation. We work very closely with them, as well as many producer-groups locally. We collaborate on research, messaging, and projects. In fact, we have a fantastic initiative right now with Ontario Corn Fed Beef and Beef Farmers of Ontario, promoting the great sustainability story of Ontario corn-fed beef, and what it means to both beef and corn producers.”
Collaboration is top of mind for Paul, as is looking for more ways to give back to his community. With experience in business ownership, his entrepreneurial spirit runs deep, and alongside his lifelong interest in science, technology, and farming, his partnership with Bioenterprise makes good sense. Paul says, “It offers a wonderful opportunity to align my passion and purpose, to bolt them together and use my skill set to hopefully bring new solutions to the marketplace.”
Paul’s insights illuminate the harmonious confluence of innovation, sustainability, and responsibility within the realm of agriculture technology. As for the future of farming in Canada, his contagious optimism is unwavering. He believes that Canadians can help solve the global food crisis together – farmers, researchers, consumers, and policy makers.
Through Paul Hoekstra’s perspective, we witness the evolving narrative of farming – a narrative woven by the hands of countless stewards, supported by cutting-edge technologies, and propelled by a shared commitment to nourish the world – through the soil, from roots to harvest.
Tabitha Caswell, Content Writer, Bioenterprise Canada
Jordan Sidsworth, Marketing Specialist, Bioenterprise Canada
About Bioenterprise Canada
Bioenterprise is Canada’s Food & Agri-Tech Engine, a national agri-technology focused commercialization accelerator. Bioenterprise uses its 20 years of industry experience and a global network of experts, mentors, funders, researchers, and industry partners to help small and medium-sized agri-food businesses connect, innovate and grow.