by Bryan Gilvesy, YU Ranch owner and Norfolk ALUS
Whenever we look ahead to the future of food and farming, the clear challenge is feeding up to 9 billion citizens across the globe. The prevailing wisdom looks towards technological improvements based on monoculture crops, GMO plants, chemicals and chemical fertilizer. This analysis often assumes the world to be static, with only the population changing. However, tying agriculture solely to these techniques has effectively linked the future of our food supply to the one resource that will go up in cost and disappear one day – oil. It also ignores the threat that climate change introduces to food production: uncertainty. In fact, even here in Southern Ontario we are now farming with 200 more corn heat units (an index showing the amount of heat required for different varieties) than we did when I started farming some 30 years ago, a 6.5% increase and strong indicator that things are warming up quickly.
It also introduces risks to farming that, up until 50 years ago, were largely managed by farmers. Industrial commodity based food systems that tether farmers to oil and commodity prices, do not focus on managing climate change risk and have introduced another layer of risk farmers never contemplated before: The fact that your industrial supplier might get it wrong.
Just ask the Canadian cattle industry how much it cost the farmers the day someone thought it was a good idea to turn cattle into cannibals by grinding blood and bone meal into cow feed as a cheap protein source. Mad cow disease not only threatened lives, but also created a loss of confidence in the food supply by eaters, a burden not born by suppliers, but by eaters and farmers. The farmer, as manager of chemicals and diesel fuel, can be considered the wagging tail of an industrial dog; part of a “value chain” that produces little value for farmers or eaters; and it certainly is not making money for farmers. A chain that produces fuel for humans, but not necessarily nourishment.
This is not a recipe for resilience, for planning ahead, for feeding the world a healthy diet, for developing methods where farmers globally can feed themselves and their communities. In fact, the recipe breaks the first rule of sustainable farming….that farms must be economically viable. But there is another kind of farming that builds resilience into the system and pays farmers, it’s a balanced approach.
The tragedy for me as a farmer is the eroding of our natural skills that sustained us and made us relevant for centuries: the ability to manage natural resources like the sun’s energy, soil life, organic matter, carbon and water. Nature is increasingly the forgotten partner in agriculture, but as we have learned with the emergence of pesticide-resistant weeds, nature usually wins. It’s time to reconnect agriculture with nature in a harmonious relationship rather than an adversarial one.
Where can we look to find resilience? By first understanding ours is a working landscape and that food production does not occur in a sterile space beside nature, it is intertwined. Secondly, by valuing nature’s benefits, we can harvest all the value farms produce by reintegrating nature’s cycles back into farming. Farms can become huge generators of important services for society, such as water filtration, carbon sequestration or biodiversity.
The benefits that nature provides are not a one-way street however, as farmers can reap from nature services that help them farm sustainably. And model examples exist now in Canada. The Alternative Land Use Services program operating now in both Norfolk County, Vermillion, Alberta and P.E.I., provides incentives for farmers who plant an innovative new hedgerow called a “pollinator hedgerow”. These windbreaks effectively curb soil erosion and, most importantly as we head into hotter and drier conditions, slow crop transpiration rates and preserve precious moisture. The hedgerow itself is made up of native flowering tree and shrub species that provide nectar (food) for native bees that are then available to pollinate field crops as required. Simple in design, the pollinator hedgerow helps preserve soil, sequesters carbon, filters water, and helps foster native bees, all issues important for society. The farmer experiences the benefit of true resilience, attracting and keeping crop pollinators, preserving moisture and capturing escaped nutrients through the tree roots and cycling them back onto the field through the litter.
The pollinator hedgerow highlights the types of activities innovative farmers can discover by reconnecting with nature through community based Alternative Land Use Services programs. The mechanism also will create new markets for farmers by aggregating ecological services that can be sold into markets requiring carbon, biodiversity or water quality credits.
Is it governments’ role to run and fund this type of programming? Not necessarily, but government can create the condition for program success by assisting piloting of the programs and policies in new communities, Most importantly, it can foster development of science-based protocols that support the quantification and verification of nature’s benefits created on-farm.
Development of sustainable and resilient food production systems by definition insists that we use natural biological cycles wherever possible to assist crop production. Do I advocate complete rejection of technological advances and a return to the Luddite age? Of course not, in fact, on our own grass-fed cattle operation we utilize very modern and productive grass varieties, created through traditional breeding techniques, for our spring and fall forage. Ancient native grasses called tall grass prairies that are diverse, heat-loving poly-cultures, however, supplement these modern grasses. These ecosystems possess roots 4 times as deep as the modern grasses, providing extreme drought and heat tolerance for dry season feed, something modern technology has yet to tackle in a meaningful way. We’ve obtained resilience for hotter and drier conditions by understanding what nature has to offer.
Like most things in life, we must find balance to sustain ourselves and, in production of the food that nourishes us, must foster all the skills of the people on the land to provide for a system that is resilient and beneficial to human health. Re-connecting with that nature provides agriculture builds resilience, creates benefits for society and value for farmers – a greater harvest than we have ever contemplated before. Governments can provide a leadership role by helping better defining benefits that nature provides and developing incentive mechanisms that support their production on the farm. For a sustainable future, we need to highlight and reward the activities of farmers who have something very important to offer – understanding of natural rhythms, systems and the interconnected nature of our food bearing lands.