A sustainable food supply is a worthy goal, but beware of simplistic solutions

Intensive, large-scale production employing the latest technology is key to feeding a hungry world

chickens in a modern barn

The view that we need to change how we produce food in the name of sustainability has become ubiquitous in Canada and other developed countries.

Indeed, spurred on by the perceptions of some consumers, the food industry has become keenly interested in how farmers produce food. They want to know about their carbon footprint; animal welfare and labour practices; and how they use water, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants.

It’s an understandable response to increased public awareness of natural resource scarcity and of food security. But aspects of this movement are simplistic, misguided, or simply wrongheaded. Some of the ideas being put forward could, if followed through to their logical extent, lead to calamitous results.

The four fallacies we should be especially wary of are:

  • We should tread more lightly on the agricultural land base;
  • Small farms are better;
  • Farm technologies can be picked from a menu;
  • New technology will solve all problems.

Don’t use more land

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and others estimate the food supply may need to double by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing, and hungry, planet.

To do that, we will either have to get more from the land we already farm or greatly increase the agricultural land base. ‘Greatly’ is the key word here. Indeed a recent study estimated that genetic improvements in major field crops between 1965 and 2004 saved between 18 million and 27 million hectares from being converted to agricultural use.

But intensive farming has prevented that. In Ontario, corn yields have doubled (to 160 bushels an acre) since 1970. In Alberta, wheat yields have gone from around 30 bushels an acre to nearly 50 in the last four decades. And livestock production gets more out of each bushel. In 1980, it took 185 days for a pig to reach 100 kilograms. Today, it’s 155 days.

Intensifying agricultural land use has not only made food cheaper and saved farmers the cost of needless land base expansion, it also means agriculture’s carbon and water footprint has been reduced and wildlife habitat and natural areas preserved.

Greater intensification comes with increased risks (such as run-off or leaching) and technologies can fail (for example, by triggering pest resistance). But we need appropriate management and metrics to mitigate these risks, rather than just turning our back on all the benefits of intensification.

Not necessarily small

Small farms conjure up an appealing view of rural communities and agrarian enterprise, and food marketers are buying into this messaging heavily.

In fact, small operations — those with less than $100,000 in farm cash receipts — still account for more than half of all farms. But once expenses are paid, there’s not much left to support a family. As well, all of those small farms together generate less than 10 per cent of farm cash receipts.

Farms have increased in size over time for a reason. It is folly to suggest that we somehow step out of or attempt to manipulate the process in which farms adopt improved technology, use less sweat labour, and generally become larger and more competitive.

We should appreciate the diversity of Canadian farms — large and small. But we should also be thankful for the advancing development of a professional farmer segment, improved competitiveness, and the technologies and the increasing size of farms that have underpinned the growth in the standard of living we enjoy.

A package deal

Food marketers are increasingly keen to restrict certain farm technologies. But the nature of agriculture makes this much more challenging than, say, a store deciding it won’t sell baby bottles made using bisphenol-A. Agriculture exists in a dynamic environment in which the many elements of the production system have complex links. That means changing one technology has a ripple effect.

One example is genetically modified crops. Weeds don’t go away just because glyphosate-tolerant crop varieties cannot be used — and other herbicides for post-emergent weed control generally have higher toxicity characteristics than glyphosate. Going GM free also means creating rules, tolerances, enforcement to control fraud, penalties, and appeal procedures. And it will create price distortions that can take years to sort out.

Moving from battery cages to cage-free systems presents similar challenges. Ventilation, building style, lighting, and flock breed must all be considered, as well as disease and pest control and implementing new flock management regimes.

European livestock industries have not collapsed in the face of restrictions on antibiotic use, and many countries have significant crop industries without using GM technology. But the adjustment is difficult — it takes time and learning; can be costly; and must be implemented in a market context rather than simply dictated. Food marketers may not get what they expected as this process of adjustment rolls out.

No silver bullets

The list of technological advances in agriculture — from the seed drill and modern mouldboard plow to innovations in chemistry and microbiology — is long and very impressive.

But many seem to take a very different view of this. They see it as “messing with Mother Nature” and creating risks which we may not perceive until it is too late.

There is certainly risk. Nature and biology are populated with unknown relationships and uncertain carrying capacities, and this new technology could shift biological equilibriums on a sudden or episodic basis. But this is not something new. Rather, it is the history of agriculture.

Employing European tillage technology contributed to soil erosion and the dust bowl of the 1930s. Atrazine was viewed as something of a miracle product when it was introduced in the 1960s, until extensive use resulted in resistant weeds, residues in groundwater, and fears about its health effects.

There are countless other examples.

Agriculture impacts and is impacted by the biology of natural systems, Mother Nature responds, and the situation changes. This has been true since the Mesopotamians began farming 10,000 years ago. The biological world is not static.

We should be cautious about new technologies and alert to the perils they might pose. But because farming is built on a base that is constantly shifting, with interrelationships we do not fully understand, we must constantly be innovating new technologies. If we are unwilling to take on the risk of new technologies, we then take on a potentially greater risk — that existing technology will continue to “work” indefinitely.

Looking forward

Increased attention to environmental, social, and economic sustainability is appropriate — and if approached properly will benefit both the agri-food sector and Canadian society.

But producing food is a complex business, and basing our agricultural policies and food marketing on past perceptions and fear of our own technology is a perilous move.

About the author



Stories from our other publications