By Pierre Petelle
We hear a lot about regenerative agriculture these days, but everyone has their own definition of what this term means. Some of these definitions focus too closely on practices and not on outcomes. At the end of the day, it’s all about soil health.
I would define regenerative agriculture as any approach to farming that ensures the soil remains in as good or better health than when you started farming it. It’s a spectrum of activities and tools focused on an outcome, rather than criteria to be met. Whatever the definition, improving soil health is a goal we can all stand behind.
Soil is the heart of agriculture – a seed can’t grow without healthy soil. Modern farming practices, including crop protection products, biologicals, and plant biotechnology, have helped build soils that are both more productive and more resilient.
In the past, some agricultural practices have led to erosion and depleted soils. But agricultural practices have evolved and continue to evolve to become more sustainable. If a prairie farmer who lived through huge amounts of top soil being blown away during the ‘dirty 30s’ could see how little top soil is lost in a windstorm today, I’m sure there’d be a real celebration of how far we’ve come.
But there’s no finish line when it comes to sustainability; it’s a process of continuous improvement. We’ve collectively moved from trying to eliminate practices that are harmful to the soil to adopting approaches that actually help to improve soil health. This, I believe, is the essence of regenerative agriculture.
I recently met a fifth-generation farmer in Saskatchewan who was using modern agriculture tools and practices, effectively regenerating his farm without calling it “regenerative agriculture.” As he plans to pass on his farm to his children, he told me that this will be the first time in five generations that the next generation is starting with a more sustainable farm with healthier soils than the previous generation started with. And he used plant science technologies to help get there. Most of the Prairies, well over 80 per cent of farmland, is now at very low risk of soil erosion due in part to plant science innovations, a large improvement compared to 30 years ago.
So, how does plant science support regenerative agriculture? Pesticides and biotech crops have enabled farmers to adopt conservation tillage practices that have reduced the need for tillage. Tillage involves plowing the soil to remove weeds. This disrupts the soil structure and makes it more prone to erosion and run-off. When the soil isn’t disturbed by tilling, organic matter builds and soil health increases.
When farmers are able to control weeds with herbicides, it reduces the need to till or plow their fields. Herbicide-tolerant crops allow farmers to apply an herbicide directly to a crop to control weeds without harming the crop. Before innovations such as genetically engineered crops, farmers would have to plow the field to remove the weeds, which took time, burned fuel and disturbed the soil.
In addition to no or reduced tillage practices, many farmers have also adopted the use of cover crops during the shoulder and winter seasons, as the local climate allows, to improve soil health. Cover crops, which are typically not harvested, serve to protect the bare soil by building organic matter, suppressing weeds, conserving moisture, retaining nutrients and minimizing erosion.
In addition to improving soil health, plant science innovations help enable soil carbon sequestration. Farmers using conservation tillage practices can reduce their carbon footprint and are able to grow more on less land, using fewer resources. Growing more food on less land means we can leave green spaces intact and preserve biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture practices, using modern tools, play a critical role in the fight against climate change. In Saskatchewan, the net impact of agriculture on GHGs has fallen by 98% as farmers have adopted no-till and conservation till between 1996 and 2016 (The Value of Plant Science Innovations to Canadians in 2020, RIAS Inc.).
Some people believe that regenerative agriculture can only be achieved by rejecting technology, but this is simply not true and would in fact have the opposite effect. While debates over different practices will continue, we’d all be better served focusing on the outcomes we are trying to achieve. While there are varying definitions of regenerative agriculture, there’s general agreement that it aims to:
- maintain or improve soil health
- sustain and improve the long-term productivity of Canada’s soil
- improve the resiliency of agriculture to drought, flooding, pests and climate change
- maintain or improve the profitability of the agriculture sector
- contribute to the production of healthy food, fuel and fibre to meet the demands of Canadians and our international customers
Global food companies are jumping on this trend and it’s important for Canadian agriculture to be part of this conversation. Recent announcements from PepsiCo, General Mills and McCain’s show the impact the term is having worldwide. The conversation about regenerative agriculture is happening and we need to be a part of it.
There are many ways to improve soil health. To simultaneously meet the growing demand of a global population and set the course for long-term sustainability, farmers will need access to all the tools. As any farmer will tell you, no two years on the farm are ever alike and no one solution works every year.
If those who support regenerative agriculture are truly committed to an outcome of healthier soil for a healthier planet, standing in opposition to modern tools and technologies that can help us get there is completely unjustifiable. History has clearly demonstrated that plant science technologies are an important piece of the puzzle as we collectively work towards healthier soils and a more resilient agriculture sector.
— Pierre Petelle is president and CEO of CropLife Canada. This article first appeared on LinkedIn, and is reposted with permission.