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Improving nature

Corn and the environment can work hand-in-hand, and thanks to our farmers, in many cases, they already do

Every harvest season, word spreads quickly about yield. And happily, that trend line is up, with growers taking off phenomenal yields whenever the weather is halfway co-operative.

But can today’s yields co-exist with a healthy environment?

It’s a question that is getting asked more and more. And for the most part, it seems, the answer is a solid “yes.”

That’s not to say the job is done. Agriculture, like any industry, needs to keep pushing environmental care and accountability; it can’t rest on its laurels. But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that our progress on the environment over the last couple of decades has often been as amazing as our progress on yields.

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Indeed production and the environment actually go together quite nicely, says Paul Sullivan. In his view, there’s nothing better for the soil and the environment than an optimal-yielding field that’s been managed around its limitations and seasonal stresses.

Partly, that’s because it so often makes sense to farm with the environment in mind, says Sullivan, a certified crop adviser from Kinburn, Ont. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to over-apply nutrients, whether you’re looking at it from an environmental or an economic viewpoint.

It’s true with soil management and other agronomic decisions too, Sullivan says. For instance, the movement to reduced tillage, the uptake of Roundup Ready and other transgenics, and the adoption of precision ag systems may all have been good for the farmer’s bottom line, yet they have also created benefits for the environment too.

Sullivan agrees that agriculture has done plenty to boost production and safeguard the environment, but he also applauds the industry for being open to more changes in practices. He points to soil erosion as just one area that requires constant monitoring.

The development of a matrix of technologies has made no till a viable, profitable choice for many growers, while also helping the environment.
photo: Supplied

“One of the biggest things that plagues agriculture, and it’s probably no different than anything in human nature, is that we’re pretty resistant to change,” says Sullivan. “We would rather stay with the status quo and complain about it than make some changes or try something different.”

In agriculture, there’s also a difference among generations. Sullivan works with young people who are more inclined to look at a bigger picture than their parents or grandparents might, and are always looking forward as opposed to wanting things to be the way they were.

Environmental awareness is not new

Dr. Darren Robinson maintains that growers have done a very good job embracing practices that not only boost production but keep environmental health in sight. He believes the majority of growers are good at striking a balance between production and putting in place management tactics to reduce or eliminate environmental impacts, and he sees the reduction in the use of fertilizers and inputs in the past 20 years as a signal that growers are mindful of their effects on the environment.

“Some of the practices that growers used years ago might have had negative environmental impacts,” says Robinson, an associate professor specializing in weed management at Ridgetown Campus, University of Guelph, where he has watched the agri-food industry make its adjustments when needed.

“At the time it was more of a lack of understanding — we didn’t know that was happening,” Robinson says. “When we acquired the knowledge, changes happened. Growers are the practitioners but I believe the whole ag community — and that includes people such as myself, and in extension and at the retail end — didn’t have the awareness and knowledge of those things.”

In some cases, such as with transgenics and chemical formulations, there have been challenges with continuous usage. If it’s glyphosate resistance that’s being discussed, Robinson says that occurred because of the selection pressure put on populations that already had resistance to it. The same thing occurred with the Group 2 chemistries, and atrazine before them.

“The tendency in business, and in anything we do, is that you find something that works well, is really efficient and reduces the time that it takes to complete a task,” says Robinson. “Across the board, that’s what we do, and it doesn’t matter if it’s agriculture or any other industry. But telling growers to not rely on something that works really well is a little analogous to telling someone they can’t use a Phillips screwdriver to turn a screw with a Phillips head, and that they have to use a slotted screwdriver. It still works, just not as well.”

It doesn’t mean that farmers have to abandon the technologies they’ve come to rely on, it just means they have to adjust and adapt to the shifts that naturally evolve — even after a few years.

Higher productivity has been the key motivator in agriculture for years, but that doesn’t mean today’s yields are coming at the expense of the environment. In fact, high yields can be good all around.
photo: Supplied

Karen Jacobs is another advocate for the co-existence of high production agriculture and environmental sustainability. She echoes Robinson and Sullivan in their observations, adding that some environmental considerations, such as improving soil health, have shown direct positive effects on increasing yields.

“Other environmental considerations may require a small amount of land to be taken out of production, but the benefits often outweigh the costs,” says Jacobs, environmental outreach specialist with Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). “Planting a buffer strip along a waterway can improve water quality both on the farm and downstream, and may offer other benefits such as providing some habitat for wildlife or acting as a windbreak.”

Jacobs sees the production-tied-to-environment approach as being different for each farm and for each farmer based on their practices. Some may have the knowledge, resources and confidence to push their environmental goals while others may be satisfied with reaching more baseline environmental considerations.

Jacobs runs down the list of programs geared towards environmental stewardship, which in many ways can enhance production, directly or indirectly. Some were developed years ago, such as nutrient management plans and environmental farm plans, and they could also be a stepping stone to other funded programs.

There is also the Farmland Health Check-up (part of the Farmland Health Incentive Program (FHIP)) and the Soil Health Check-Up (part of the Soil Health Improvement Program (SHIP)) that can provide CCA-guided planning which can then trigger government funding for on-farm measures.

Those programs work, Jacobs says, because farmers adopt them.

“Producers should be praised for their stewardship efforts,” Jacobs says, adding that as an industry, farmers and stakeholders need to be more comfortable talking about everything that’s being done. “And we need to push that message outside of our own circles to allow it to reach a wider audience. Farmers can continue to demonstrate their respect for our resources by being open to new ideas, testing them for practical application and adopting those that make that specific farm business more sustainable.”

More still to be done

Most people in agriculture agree that there is more that can be done to spread those positive messages about on-farm practices, especially to consumers who know so little about the realities of modern-day farming.

Sullivan believes agriculture can do much more to aid in the process of keeping the public better informed, first by being up front about the tools of the trade, and then to challenge those sources that misrepresent the facts about farming.

“What we should be doing is promoting the technologies we have, what they are, what they do and why we use them,” says Sullivan. “Consumers don’t necessarily like change either. They get something and they want to keep getting it. When they get information about something, when they get it once, it’s hard to change their opinion.”

But Sullivan is optimistic. He points out when he was in school 30 years ago, there was no emphasis on justifying things that were being done — no question about why, it was just the way things were done. Now when students get out of school today, they’ve been taught that they have a responsibility to communicate what they’re doing and what’s happening within the industry.

“It becomes a continuing movement within our industry to communicate to the end-user,” says Sullivan. “We don’t understand the consumer any more than they understand agriculture, and the more we talk back and forth, the better we’re able to understand each other and realize where things are coming from. In most cases, that’s where things fall off the rails, when we don’t understand something and we immediately condemn it.”

Even in the last three to five years, as the number of people who advocate for agriculture continues to rise, the focus has also been shifting, so we’re doing a better job of talking to consumers in terms that they understand.

Robinson also agrees with the advocacy angle, and that farmers need to be more involved in sharing the positive stories and being up front with consumers on why they use herbicides and GMOs or high-horsepower tractors. Granted, that’s a bigger challenge than 20 years ago, when most of the newer technologies simply didn’t exist.

The important thing, as Robinson sees it, is that the advocacy must come across as an explanation, not as some kind of self-congratulation.

“An audience is more likely to listen to advocacy if we do it in a positive way and show the value of what the agri-food community does for society at large,” Robinson says. “Farmers deserve the recognition, but I would worry that if it comes across as praise, it might not be received the way we want it to be.”

This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Corn Guide.

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