Climate change is wreaking havoc in many forms worldwide – it also threatens food security. Recent research findings suggest that regenerative organic agriculture can offer a vital line of defence against climate change impacts as well as help to enhance and sustain food systems.
In the absence of action, the current outlook is concerning. In 2018, for example, costs of severe weather to Canadian farms reached $2-billion, the fourth highest on record.
Many Canadian food producers and consumers believe maintaining the status quo in food systems is no longer enough. Agriculture has to be part of the solution, with approaches that help to regenerate soil and agro-ecosystems promising significant benefits for soil health, biodiversity, water and air quality.
For Brett Israel, associate manager at 3Gen Organics, a farm that has been in the family for over five generations, “regenerative and organic practices complement each other as a pathway to the health of our soil, communities and environment.”
Providing communities with good nutritious food, being good stewards of the land and ensuring the economic sustainability of the business are all elements of meeting the triple bottom line of “people, planet and profit,” says Mr. Israel. “We have a responsibility to leave things in better shape for the future, and I believe the health of humanity is directly tied to the health of our soil.”
Tia Loftsgard, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association, also sees soil health as key. “Regenerative organic agriculture not only maintains resources but improves them,” she says. “With only about 60 years of topsoil remaining at current practices, nothing less will do if we are going to be able to produce food for the next generation.”
What comes first for Carolyn Young, executive director of the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO), is a recognition that agricultural emissions, which make up about 12 per cent of total Canadian emissions, are not only significant – they are going up. In 2018, they were 22 per cent higher compared to 1990.
“Nitrogen-based fertilizers and inputs are a contributing factor. According to a National Farmers Union report, to produce, transport and apply one tonne of nitrogen fertilizer requires energy equivalent to nearly two tonnes of gasoline,” she explains. “And Canadian farmers have doubled nitrogen use since 1993.”
Organic farming eliminates the use of all synthetic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and genetically engineered (GMO) seeds, and this means organic producers have to use different tools for managing diseases and pests.
“Organic agriculture often relies on tillage to manage weeds, but one of the three key pillars of regenerative practices is reducing soil disturbance, especially tillage,” says Mr. Israel, who is also a member of OCO and participates in Living Lab on-farm research related to organic regenerative practices. “A focus on cultural practices can help to manage weeds and other pest pressures in a way that enriches the ecology and the health of the soil rather than depleting it.”
A second priority is ensuring that land bases support the amount of livestock raised, he explains. “We are organic pork producers, and we have neighbours who are in the beef, dairy and poultry business, so we are able to trade manure in order to keep the nutrients on the land, which is quite important.”
The third pillar is to foster as much diversity as possible, and for 3Gen Organics, this means a diverse crop rotation, notes Mr. Israel. “We grow close to 10 different main crop species in addition to over 20 different cover crop species, which means we never have a monoculture in any area of the farm.”
These three key pillars of regenerative agriculture can be incorporated into any operation, regardless whether producers are organic or conventional, which makes this a “neat, inclusive approach to farming,” says Mr. Israel. “We need everyone to come together, from producers to consumers, to support a vibrant local food system. Our symbiotic relationship really needs to shine in these difficult times.”
Ms. Young sees “organic farming as a way that farmers and eaters can help be part of the solution to the climate crisis.
“In nearly 40 years of comparing the effects of conventional versus organic agriculture side by side, the Farming Systems Trial has found that organic systems use 45 per cent less energy, release 40 per cent fewer carbon emissions, and improve the health and quantity of soil over time,” she says. “They also have the potential to produce yields up to 40 per cent higher in times of drought than conventional systems.”
Not only can regenerative organic agriculture be a climate solution by reducing emissions in general, says Ms. Young, it can also help farmers to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events by reducing costs and potentially increasing yields.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA). The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.