By Stuart Smyth, September 7, 2023
The world needs a lot of food to feed eight billion hungry mouths. Even though global production for the most important crops – rice, wheat and maize – reached all-time highs last year, inflation, geopolitical interruptions and misguided policy have disrupted our ability to make food abundant and affordable for everyone.
Crop breeding, more efficient fertilizer and chemical use, and investments in farming equipment and technology offer tried and true strategies for increasing production while enhancing sustainability and reducing GHG emissions.
The European Union is rejecting these proven strategies through policies that dramatically reduce fertilizer and chemical use and ban modern crop breeding technologies. Regrettably, Canada’s federal government is looking at the European approach as a model for its emissions reduction plans. Canadians must reject the ideologically driven, counterproductive policies pursued in the European Union and must insist on science and outcome-driven policies to promote a strong, sustainable agricultural sector that can help satisfy the world’s growing needs.
Innovation is fundamental to modern societies and economies. Governments constantly encourage innovation and enact policies to incentivize investment into the research and development required to bring new products and processes to market. In recent years, environmental sustainability has been a primary concern and Canadian agriculture has been at the forefront of sustainable innovation. Fundamentally, sustainability in agriculture means maximizing efficiency: producing more pounds of crop per acre of land for each pound of input (seed, fertilizer, pesticides, labour) applied.
Prior to the widespread adoption of modern crop technologies, all crop and food production was done through what are now known as organic production practices. With organic production the only way to produce more food is to use more land. However, beginning in 1960, food production became decoupled from increased land use, increasing by 390% while using only 10% more land. Innovations in crop breeding technologies such as GM crops (genetically modified), fertilizer and chemical use, and farm industrialization have all contributed to this increasingly sustainable food production.
This increase in productivity has allowed the world’s population to flourish from just 3 billion people in 1960 to 8 billion today. Although the global agricultural sector is a significant source of greenhouse gases, total emissions have remained flat since 2000 even as production increased, and the sector’s share of global emissions has declined.
Despite this incredible success story, modern agriculture is often viewed with suspicion, particularly in the European Union. They have incorporated precaution-based regulations which dramatically reduce fertilizer and chemical use and ban modern crop breeding technologies. Presently they are proposing to triple organic production, from 8% of current land to 25%, by 2030, as part of what’s known as their “Farm to Fork” strategy to reduce agricultural GHG emissions.
Inevitably, the strategy will not necessarily reduce emissions but will certainly reduce production. Declines are expected: -26% in cereals, -27% in oilseeds, -10% for fruits and vegetables, -14% of beef and -9% of dairy. All of these production decreases will contribute to even higher food prices in the EU, which has been experiencing double digit inflation increases for most of the past year.
By contrast, Canada allows all plant breeding technologies to be used in the development of new varieties, and fertilizer and chemical use is based upon risk appropriate, science-based regulations. The benefits of this approach are unambiguous.
In Saskatchewan, only 3% of crop land requires tillage – mechanical turning of the soil to control for weeds and pests and prepare for seeding. In the European Union, 74% of crop land requires it. Removing tillage from land management practices not only reduces soil erosion and increases moisture conservation; it also reduces the amount of carbon released and increases the sequestration of carbon through continuous crop production. 90% of Saskatchewan farmers indicate that efficient weed control provided by the use of glyphosate increased sustainability in their practices, and 73% said production of herbicide tolerant canola, which is predominantly GM, did.
An assessment of EU agricultural GHG emissions concluded that had genetically modified crops been adopted there in a timely fashion, total EU agricultural GHG emissions would have been reduced by 7.5%. This amounts to 33 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. At any rate, their reduced yields have left them heavily dependent on imports of GM livestock feed from Brazil and Argentina.
Comparing sustainable agricultural production between the EU and Canada reveals two very different situations. The EU has rejected GM crops due to politics and precaution and as a result still heavily relies on tillage. Canadian farmers have enthusiastically adopted GM crops, virtually eliminating tillage. The EU is proposing additional precaution-based regulations that will further reduce crop and food production. Canadian farmers have demonstrated the ability to produce more food with fewer inputs, while the EU is poised to produce less, with more land requirements.
Opposing paths have been selected in the EU and Canada. The evidence to date confirms that it is Canadian agricultural production that is increasingly sustainable. The government must learn the right lessons from Europe’s mistakes when adopting strategies for reducing emissions from our agricultural sector. Canada should continue to improve sustainability through innovation. Canada should not follow Europe’s failed attempts to reduce emissions by producing less food.
Stuart J. Smyth is Professor & Agri-Food Innovation & Sustainability Enhancement Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.