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Developing more intensive, sustainable growing practices on existing agricultural land is essential to mitigating climate change and global malnutrition.SUPPLIED

Extreme weather events, armed conflicts, population growth and global political instability are putting mounting pressure on food security.

The consequences are apparent. In California, for instance, changing climate conditions and worsening drought have bred more frequent insect infestations in the “salad bowl of the world.” In Yemen, conflict has bred economic conditions that have plunged millions into hunger.

Each country has to contend with its own conditions when it comes to food security. The common thread between them all is the interconnectedness of global food supply chains. Reducing food insecurity in the coming decades demands action now, says Matt Marshall, vice-president of sustainable agriculture and retail strategy at global agriculture giant Nutrien Inc., a Canadian company and the world’s largest provider of crop inputs and services.

In this Q&A with Mr. Marshall, we discuss the factors shaping food insecurity and what it will take to secure food supplies for our current and future generations.

What are the biggest threats to food security right now?

We have two persistent factors.

The most acutely felt is the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which materially impacted access to the inputs growers need and, of course, the crop commodities the world is dependent on for food.

That said, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been ongoing for over a year now and we are not feeling the same kind of acuteness to those disruptions that were felt at its onset for a variety of reasons including a more localized conflict, improved access to port and logistical infrastructure and a response by the global agriculture supply chain to fill supply gaps. That’s not to say that the conflict couldn’t escalate and obviously, as it continues to extend, there remains ongoing risk of disruption to the flow of key crops and fertilizer commodities produced from that region.

We also have other geopolitical risks. Tension between the U.S. and China, for instance, may significantly influence the trade of key agricultural commodities and disrupt food supply flows.

Secondly, we’re also seeing an increased frequency of extreme weather events impacting broad swaths of our agricultural producing lands globally. These greater extremes are impacting growers directly, and the producing regions the planet is dependent upon for food production.

What farming practices need to change, and what practices show promise in further protecting the environment and reliably feeding more Canadians?

It all comes back to the resiliency of those supply chains – what we’re doing within our existing producing acres to promote and enhance the resiliency of our food production systems, and doing so more sustainably.

We cannot afford to convert massive swaths of land to cropping acres. The emissions impact from that conversion of land would well outstrip anything we could do from a sustainability standpoint. So, it’s imperative that we’re focused on improving the production intensity and the input use efficiency on the acres that are in production today.

It’s a balance between crop production and sustainability, with a need for greater adoption of products and practices that boost the intensity of crop production on existing acreage and avoid conversion of land, whether its deforestation or the conversion of native grasslands and pasture lands.

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“Growers are rising to the challenge of improving food security and agricultural sustainability amid the growing effects of climate change and geopolitical instability.”SUPPLIED

What novel farming techniques and approaches to food can improve our climate resilience?

It starts with having healthy soils and ensuring that the availability of nutrients is optimized for uptake into the crop. We need to ensure that we’ve got the right practices and products that help growers preserve and enrich the soil profile to make their operations more resilient and productive.

Practices like minimum-disturbance or no-tillage and the use of cover crops improve soil structure, making soil less susceptible to erosion. They also enhance water retention and nutrient availability and uptake, and improve the soil’s natural ability to sequester carbon.

When weather events are more extreme – for example, increased frequency of significant rainfall in a short period of time – having a strong and robust soil structure allows for more water absorption and retention. This lets crops have the moisture they need, despite the fact that there may be longer periods of low rainfall or prolonged drought.

What’s one thing you wish more people understood about the relationship between food security and sustainability?

I think the fact that the two can co-exist, and that producing more food does not translate into an agricultural sector that has to have a larger environmental footprint as a result.

The food security needs of a growing global population can be balanced with a more sustainable, more resilient crop production system. There are many growers in the major producing regions where we operate that are already striking this balance.

However, there is room for improvement, and an opportunity for us to continue to go down this path of addressing food security concerns within a more resilient agricultural production system while also reducing the environmental footprint of the sector. It takes greater adoption of sustainable practices such as GHG emissions reductions, reducing water use, minimizing nutrient runoff into groundwater and protecting and preserving natural environments and ecosystems.

How is Nutrien working to address food insecurity in Canada, and around the world?

We’ve been working over the last several years to develop programs that promote and incentivize sustainable products and practices that lead to increased crop production while minimizing the impact to the environment. Right now, we’re working on a range of pilot projects to understand and develop scalable pathways to sustainably increase crop production.

In 2022, we actively worked with growers on sustainability initiatives across roughly one million acres. Those initiatives included deploying agronomic solutions to improve input efficiency and crop productivity. We also worked on expanding techniques to improve environmental performance, including developing opportunities for our grower customers to participate in voluntary carbon markets and realize premiums for sustainable, traceable crop commodities.

In Canada, we’ve been leveraging compliance-based protocols, such as the Alberta Nitrous Oxide Emission Reduction Protocol and Conservation Cropping Protocol, to incentivize nutrient stewardship practices.

We’ve been advancing sustainability initiatives across the organization for some time. There is still a lot of work to do, but we feel really excited about helping our growers sustainably increase crop production while also supporting a more resilient global food system in the long term.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Nutrien. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.