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Cattle Country: Researchers, producers and industry discuss farming for sustainable food systems

May 1, 2022 — 

The following article was written by Peter Frohlich, National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE), University of Manitoba.  It was originally published in Cattle Country in May 2022. Photo credit: Emma McGeough

The 8th Annual Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture Conference (SCAC) was held virtually March 16-18. This year’s theme, “Farming for sustainable food systems” renewed the ongoing commitments of producers, industry and academia to work together to enhance and grow an environmentally sustainable Canadian agricultural sector. The National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) partnered once again to bring forward a program that explored strategies to redesign our food production systems, forge the road to carbon neutrality and manage agriculture production from a broad landscape perspective to achieve enhanced sustainability.

Leveraging the agri-food system for a post-carbon world

The Keynote address was given by David Kanter, a passionate researcher who is the associate professor of environmental studies at New York University and Vice-Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative. Kanter tackled the big picture environmental policy structure and eloquently emphasized the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of current global policy instruments to make meaningful change to emissions as we strive to transition to a post-carbon agri-food system. Kanter emphasized that decarbonizing agriculture and the broader agri-food system is essential to meeting global carbon emission targets. He suggests solutions are found in a new governance approach focused not only farmers but on all the players in the food industry, including fertilizer companies, processors, crop advisors, water treatment plants, supermarkets and others. It is important to consider all the components of the agriculture industry as they all influence production decisions that farmers make. Kanter suggests that solutions to effective decarbonization of agriculture rest in optimizing and transforming agricultural production with consideration given to the many factors that offer tradeoffs and synergies. Kanter calls on researchers and industry stakeholders including government to continue exploring novel strategies and developing effective policies to achieve Canada’s emissions targets.

Redesigning our food production systems

During this panel session speakers explored avenues to redesign existing production systems to further develop sustainability in agriculture. Can we build on what nature has already provided? Perenniality and diversity are present-day buzz terms deemed as innovative methods to enhance current cropping systems practices. When in fact, existing knowledge tells us that all natural ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, savannahs, the tundra and deserts are dominated by perennial and diverse vegetation that has survived for years, decades or even centuries. Part of the solution can be to readjust elements of the current cropping systems by replacing annual crops with perennial plants that will replenish carbon inputs, enhance soil microbial activity and foster soil stability by minimizing carbon and nitrogen loss. Utilizing existing knowledge also means recognizing the abundance of information available from the Indigenous cultures of Canada. A presentation during this panel outlined what the Canadian government, via AAFC is doing to recognize this knowledge and how listening to traditional Indigenous concepts needs to be a part of the current conversation. Recycling and reusing co-products from the processing sector is essential to enhance agricultural sustainability. The final presenter demonstrated the functionality and profitably of repurposing co-products from the Manitoba yellow pea processing industry as a novel protein ingredient in livestock feed.

Paving the road for carbon neutrality

The speakers in this session agree that that the road to carbon neutrality requires changes in the fundamental structure of our food production system with an emphasis on nitrogen reduction to achieve the 2030 target of reducing nitrogen use by 30%. Can we do it? Options include incentives for adoption of 4R practices (right source, rate, right time and place) and increasing the role of carbon markets. Furthermore, the key to the successful reduction of nitrogen is rooted in biology and it includes increased reliance on grain legumes and other plants that biologically fix nitrogen plus the use of renewable energy for both nitrogen fertilizer production and to run farm machinery. The on-farm perspective in this session included examples of how to make a farm net negative including adoption of regenerative agricultural practices, incorporating Green substitutes for nitrogen fertilizers and diesel fuel and ensuring we are adopting sustainable intensification of inputs to optimize yield and profitability. The final speaker provided an industry perspective with an introduction to carbon offsetting, reaffirming that there is a need for a carbon market. Agricultural producers are uniquely positioned to benefit from rising carbon prices. Carbon offsets, including emissions avoidance (mitigation) and carbon sequestration, accelerate decarbonization and with the price of carbon increasing, demand exceeds supply and early adopters will receive cash payments for offsets they generate.

Farming with a landscape perspective

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In this session we heard about big picture, landscape scale farm management practices. The first presentation set the stage and defined the landscape of a farm operation in terms of integrated facets, including cropland and wetland management. Practices that increase the organic carbon in the soil are built on an understanding of the relationship between moisture, soil erosion and tillage practices as well as the need to increase organic biomass in the soil.

To build on the researcher perspective, the producer emphasized the benefits of adding livestock manure and zero till practices to improve the amount of organic carbon in the soil. Leaving natural areas natural can have positive effects on soil health and crop yields. Preserving natural areas, conserving, restoring and managing landscapes is also the mission for Ducks Unlimited Canada. Amongst the many on-the-ground conservation activities, Ducks Unlimited Canada supports the beef industry and its grazing practices that help to maintain diverse grasslands within the ecosystems.

The final producer perspective focused on agricultural systems management and echoed the importance of regenerative agriculture through integration of crops, livestock and conservation activities. With hard work, these methods can be scalable and profitable leading to increased water absorption in soils, increased nutrients and increased organic matter. Take care of the land and it will take care of us.

Farming for sustainable food systems and Holos workshop

More than 80 conference participants joined the Holos model training workshop and received hands-on training & demonstrations on the modeling software. Holos is a free, whole-farm model and software program that estimates greenhouse gas emissions on individual farms. The objective of Holos is to examine the impact of management practices on GHG emissions from farms. Training consisted of short demonstrations followed by the opportunity for participants to practice what they have learned on their own computers, to ask questions and to provide feedback.

Student Video Competition

Graduate students were invited to pitch their research projects in 3-minute pre-recorded videos on how their work can benefit farmers and the sustainability of Canadian agriculture. Eleven creative entries were submitted to the competition by students from across Canada. A wide range of sustainability topics were addressed from mitigating greenhouse gas emissions to increasing crop diversity and assessing on farm management practices that ensure environmental sustainability. The competition winners included first place Emily Laage (Dalhousie University) who talked about organic field crop greenhouse gas emissions across Canada, second place Crystal Almdal (University of Manitoba) who discussed how crop diversity reduces aphid colonization in soybean and third place Sharandeep Singh (University of British Columbia) who gave an entertaining glimpse into his research on combating fusarium head blight in wheat. An additional prize, the people choice award was awarded to Emily Laage. All videos can be viewed on the conference website.

Barley Sandwich Sessions

New this year and the invention by Dr. Roland Kroebel, conference co-chair and researcher with AAFC, were the very successful and well-attended Barley Sandwich Sessions. Two end-of-day sessions were designed to stimulate free conversations between conference attendees, scientists, producers and industry on a wide range of topics related to sustainability in agriculture. The first Barley Sandwich Session encouraged conference attendees to enter one of three virtual rooms that held experts that discussed beef, soils and farm modeling concepts in agriculture. The second Barley Sandwich Session was held on the last day of the conference following closing remarks and carried on into the early evening. The discussions during this session flowed freely and build on the topics established by speakers during the previous three days of presentations.

The conference drew on average 200 attendees per day. Once again this year, the SCAC was approved for continuing education units with the Prairie Crop Advisor Board. The 2022 Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture Conference organizing committee, comprised of researchers, industry, producers, and government and co-chaired by Dr. Kim Ominski, Director of NCLE, would like to thank all those who attended and helped to make this annual conference a success. A special thanks to Planners Plus who worked hard to ensure a seamless online delivery of the conference. See y’all next year!

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