The Universal Wolf
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The Universal Wolf

A Successful Food Policy means More Resilient Farms.

The Federal Government just announced funding to help farmers transition to more resilient, soil-healthy methods.

In an article I wrote in this space in May, 2021, I noted that changing agricultural policy so that it is based on soil health will go a long way in mitigating climate change, making our farms more resilient to climate change shocks, improve soil health and, ultimately, help farmers grow healthier, more micro-nutrient rich crops for consumers.

I also noted that it was up to Government to step up and help farmers make the transition away from environmentally degrading monocrop farming practices towards more sustainable, regenerative methods. Some farmers have already done this without public assistance. For example, Regeneration Canada’s interactive farm map shows more that 100 farms or producers (and counting) that adhere to regenerative agricultural practices.

But not all farmers have the financial leverage to do this on their own. And that’s where government can step in and help speed the process. Because we have to go further, and faster.

As the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states, we’re in for a world of hurt on our existing food system:

  • Human-induced warming has slowed agricultural productivity for the past 50 years, and with increasing warming, its going to get worse, as crop yields continue to decline, and the quality of our soil continues to degrade. We’re already seeing this happen in areas like California’s Central Valley and the Midwest corn belt, two of the most agriculturally productive regions of the US, and source of a lot of Canada’s food during the winter months.
  • Increased warming is literally screwing with the timing of yields and pollination cycles. Think of crops that used to be available at a certain time of year now available either earlier, or later, depending on where their grown.
  • Agricultural productivity is decreasing, and further, is subject to sudden shocks that affect entire crops over a growing season. The report found that yields overall have decline by about 5% since the early 1960’s.
  • Agricultural areas that are productive today will no longer be so as warming continues.
  • North America in particular will be subject to water shortages, droughts and decreasing yields across the board.

As if climate changes wasn’t bad enough, our industrial farming methods are killing the soil, reducing biological diversity and sucking up precious water resources at an alarming rate. In other words, the way we farm today is setting ourselves up for farm failure down the road. We need to act, not just for the climate, but to ensure the very survival of our agricultural system.

It seems that the message is slowly getting through. In late February, 2022, the Federal Government announced CDN$183 million in funding that would be dispersed through 10 farm-based organizations across Canada. The money is directed at three specific target areas:

  • Cover cropping. Either as a payment-per-acre to cover adoption or money to cover related costs such as seeds and equipment. Cover crops are plants, like clover and alfalfa, that are planted to cover the soil rather than for the purpose of being harvested.
  • Nitrogen management. Funds will be directed to help cover the costs of agronomic services to develop farm-specific nutrient management plans, equipment modifications for fertilizer application in fields, and soil sampling and analysis.
  • Rotational grazing. Again, funding will be directed to cover agronomic services to develop grazing management plans, interior cross fencing, water system infrastructure, as well as legume and forage seeds. Rotational grazing is the practice of containing and moving livestock through pasture to allow forage plants to recover, deepen their root systems and improve soil health.

The organizations that will distribute these funds are located across the country, representing most main provinces and a variety of different organizations, such as the B.C. Investment Agriculture Foundation, ECOCERT Canada, the Canola Council of Canada, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association and the L’Union des producteurs agricole (UPA) of Quebec.

All of these groups are producer-owned and operated not-for-profit organizations that have certain expertise in delivering programmes to their member organizations throughout whichever province they operate in. Their Boards of Directors are made up almost exclusively of representatives of the larger producers. In addition, the money that the Federal Government has provided — as good as it is and as targeted as it is — won’t go too far and may not trickle down to smaller producers who may need the money the most if they wish to survive and thrive as the climate changes.

This, frankly, is consistent with how the Federal Government operates these days. They tinker around the edges with announcements that will have little impact on actually turning things around. The financial assistance, welcome that it is, won’t go far and will likely barely move the needle on where farms need to go in terms of their conversion to more sustainable, more resilient methods of agriculture. This may have to do with the split jurisdiction in Agricultural policy and programmes in Canada. The Federal Government cannot act alone, as the Provinces have significant powers in the area of managing their own agricultural policies. More on that in a future article.

That said, one can hope that this signals a change in mindset within the Federal Agriculture and Agri-food policy bureaucracy. The measures they’ve targeted are part of the overall toolkit that farmers need to transition from what they do now, to what they need to do to enable their longer term survival.

But it doesn’t go far enough, or fast enough. When prime farmland is flooded from the appearance of atmospheric rivers, or left to die in a sustained drought, or is basically killed through the over-abundance of chemical fertilizers, a clearer, more ambitious roadmap is required at both the Federal and Provincial levels to help drive the sector to greater resilience.

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash.

Perhaps the upcoming discussions around renewing the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Agricultural Framework in 2023 will help crystalize the thinking around a more complete approach. I’ll certainly do my part in reminding the Governments that the Equiterre/Greenbelt Foundation Power of Soil report should be taken seriously, and provides an achievable, aggressive policy response to change our agricultural sector for the better; a policy approach that is echoed by the IPCC, who advocate moving away from monocrop production to diversity in crops production, and including forestry, fisheries and livestock in future farms. It also should be one of the foundational pillars of a more complete Canadian Food Policy.

As the pandemic, and now a localized war in Europe, shows, our supply chains and methods today are extremely vulnerable to shocks. The more we can do now to mitigate those shocks will help secure our food future. Because without food, we cannot exist.

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