Is momentum being lost for sustainable agriculture?

Farmers have made great strides toward sustainability, but there are fears that we’re starting to slip back

Have we become more sustainable?” asks Martin Entz, professor of natural systems agriculture at the University of Manitoba. “In some ways we’ve moved forward a long way, but there’s also some things we’ve moved backwards on.”

Farmers have scored big wins in erosion control, the rate of organic matter loss, water use efficiency, weed management, yields, and economic efficiency, says Entz. Those gains are backed up, for instance, by research from Pulse Canada, which compiled data from 1981 to 2011 showing improvements in a range of areas in Western Canada and Ontario.

But amid the scores of initiatives across the country that are aimed at boosting agriculture’s sustainability and to minimize its environmental impact, Entz is challenging farmers to take a critical look at how far they’ve come, and how far they have yet to go.

That starts with the recognition that the change in Canada’s farms is real, and it is as positive as can be seen from those Pulse Canada numbers. “We’re just finishing a fertilizer use survey as part of this effort, and some of the information that we’re gathering from that is that growers are applying good practices when it comes to placement and timing of fertilizer,” says Denis Trémorin, Pulse Canada’s director of sustainability. “A lot of people have moved to single-pass systems in the western provinces. So everything is going down with the seed, and that makes things more efficient.”

But Entz says energy efficiency is an area where little headway has been made.

“We’re using a lot of energy to produce the crops that we are, with fossil fuel energy in the form of fertilizers,” Entz says. “And we’re not producing our crops much more (energy) efficiently than we were in the past. Maybe less efficient.”

Nicole MacKellar, Grain Farmers of Ontario’s market development manager, says improvements are evident in spraying applications thanks to GPS and auto steer systems.

“Those are two very big components that we’ve really seen become adopted quite heavily in Ontario,” MacKellar says. “GPS not only allows you to plant straighter, but for a spraying application, we have very precise information so there’s not any overlap. We can be very precise when we’re spraying around ditches or creeks.”

Have GMOs turned the tide?

John Oliver adds Roundup has totally changed agriculture for the better on the sustainability side because farmers are no longer running over their fields multiple times, burning fuel and wearing out machinery.

But Entz says GMO technology has been less than a boon to sustainability.

No till was already practised before GM crops, although Entz concedes the ability to use glyphosate on certain crops made it easier to reduce tillage.

“The herbicide-tolerant crops really, they just bought us some time with weeds, because now we see resistance building to glyphosate. So the GM crops are becoming much more ordinary in terms of their weed benefits,” Entz says.

Oliver, however, argues in favour of GMOs, especially the potential they might offer in the future.

“There’s no way we’re going to feed the world without being able to place the traits that allow us to get by on much less water for plant rearing. There’s just no way,” Oliver says.

Oliver also argues Western Canada’s cropping system is among the most sustainable in the world, in no small part because the crop mix has changed so much and eliminated the wheat/fallow rotation.

Entz agrees that crop diversity has increased in some areas, but argues GM technology has promoted more monoculture.

Also, even if you take into account more pulses and soybeans, canola and wheat remain the dominant crops by a long shot.

Falling diversity

“We do see on the Prairies now the level of crop diversity has dropped in the last 10 or 15 years,” Entz says, noting production of crops like barley and rye has fallen. “We want to diversify our crops, and it remains a challenge. And I don’t know if the investment is so weighted toward very, very few crops that they’re getting all the attention in terms of breeding and management systems that it becomes harder to compete with them.”

Another area of farming that hasn’t improved is in water drainage, Entz argues. Loss of wetlands in particular has become problematic for lakes, and it’s cost farmers a lot of money to deal with the excess water that runs off their landscape.

MacKellar notes GFO has been actively involved in looking at voluntary solutions that the Ontario agriculture industry can implement. The group is trying to address water quality issues through its involvement in the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program, which looks at farmers applying their nutrients at the right rate and source at the right time and place.

“We drink and utilize that same water that the general consumer does. So what as an Ontario agriculture industry can we be doing proactively to address that situation?” MacKellar asks. “We really feel that 4R Nutrient Stewardship provides us that voluntary tool that farmers could utilize.”

Perennials and livestock

“Ontario’s gone in many ways way backwards,” says Entz, who argues that the province’s agriculture sector’s sustainability was weakened when many of its pastures were replaced by corn and soybeans.

“We’ve really abandoned a lot of our perennial pasture approaches and gone to straight grains,” Entz explains. “And once you’re in the straight grain farming system, then you have all the water quality problems, you have the energy problems, you have the herbicide-resistance problems.”

The Canadian Prairies never bought into perennial pastures at the same degree Ontario did at one time. But perhaps it’s time they did. Entz points out that many farmers already grow crops intended for livestock consumption anyway, and that perennials would allow animals to harvest those plants themselves through grazing.

Whether a farmer was to graze his own livestock or a neighbour’s, the market would be the same — feeding ruminents for human consumption.

“Because we’re so involved in the livestock business in Western Canada — so much of what we produce goes for livestock feed — I think that that would allow us to change our farming systems, at least in some places, and not really change what we’re feeding,” says Entz. “We’re still going to produce seven million beef animals every year on the Prairies. Can we organize our farming systems to serve that a bit differently? I know it’s a big challenge, but I think we should at least be thinking of these things.”

There are already numerous farmers in Western Canada who’ve got breeding stock for grass finishing. And there are farmers who are grazing almost year long and calving in the spring. The beauty of the latter is it allows a farmer to take his animal into a second summer of grazing and sell it fat.

Entz calls the livestock sector the “low-hanging fruit” of sustainability. With perennials in the system, the land’s drainage improves and can better handle heavy rains.”

That ability to handle excess moisture could prove a crucial trait, Entz believes. “One thing we know with climate change is, as the temperature goes up, the atmosphere holds more water, which means when it rains it’s going to rain harder. We’re already seeing a lot of farmers struggling with excess soil water. And we know that when you have perennials in your system, it’s not nearly as susceptible to that problem.”

This article was originally published as “Two steps forward…” in the July/August 2015 western edition of Country Guide.

About the author


Stories from our other publications


  • SageThinker

    Glyphosate may enable more no-till, but it also has effects on the soil microbiota and worms. It can change the microbial community in the soil. It may also be of concern in the crops in the human diet. We need more research to understand whether it has effects on the human gut. Rabbit feeding studies at higher exposures do show evidence for severe gut disturbances.

  • Stephen Denys

    Technology has given us the ability to become more sustainable. Don’t kid yourself, if you start pulling away technology the evidence is very clear that you need to re-adopt practices including tillage that could be more detrimental to the environment. Well meaning people that want the romance of old style food production have never been on the front lines to see how it was done and the costs – including the costs to the environment that this involves. Technology – including pesticides and biotechnology – drives sustainability. We produce the safest and cheapest food supply in the world for a reason – innovation adoption to drive sustainability. Going backwards is not the answer. Be careful what you ask for.