There are two ways to get a horse to carry a heavy load. You can hit it with a big stick, or you can provide a reward for work well done. Think of agriculture as the horse, and governments’ sustainability goals as the load farmers are being asked to carry. Too often governments reach for the regulatory stick rather than providing incentives for positive action, even though the incentive-based path will lead to greater success.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada just wrapped up consultations on a new sustainable agricultural strategy. We are at cross-roads as a country. We can either choose to accomplish our sustainability goals through an incentive-based approach, rooted in collaboration and partnership, or a punitive top-down process that relies on the regulatory stick, which will in turn generate acrimony and reduce our nation’s competitiveness.
The first step in a collaborative, incentive-based approach would be a recognition that farmers are already partners in the development of best management practices that have generated significant gains on key sustainability benchmarks like nutrient management, water quality, and greenhouse gas reductions.
For example, Manitoba’s hog farmers now inject or incorporate 90 per cent of manure used as fertilizer. Manure is only applied after soil testing determines the correct rate of application for the crop being grown. These best management practices help minimize the potential for nutrient leaching, ensure the nutrient value of manure is used to its maximum potential, and help lower greenhouse gas emissions. Other changes, like the adoption of more energy efficient buildings can help reduce energy use, reduce costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Advancements in sustainable farming practices have been made across all sectors of agriculture, including conservation tillage and grazing practices that mimic natural ecosystems. Before farmers are asked to further advance national sustainability objectives, it is important to recognize what they are already doing.
Policy makers want to see a greater number of farmers adopting new technology and management practices that they hope, and hope is a key word, will generate positive environmental outcomes. Farmers are already voracious consumers of technology.
For example, hog farmers can monitor and control the temperature and ventilation in their hog barns from their phones. Advances such as global positioning systems, geographic information systems, electromagnetic flow meters, and radar and ultrasonic speed sensors are helping farmers more precisely apply manure where nutrients are needed. Technology is changing all sectors of agriculture. My dad’s first combine had no cab or even a seat while a modern combine cab looks like the cockpit of a passenger jet. We do not have to convince farmers to accept technology, rather they need to see that new approaches will actually work.
New technology does not always work as expected. New production practices may have unexpected consequences and unknown costs. Asking farmers to move out further on the new technology adoption curve is not realistic unless these risks can be mitigated. This should be a key element of governments’ sustainability efforts – mitigating the risks taken on by farmers who are early adopters. Again, the focus needs to be on the carrot or incentive rather than the regulatory stick.
The stick held by governments comes in the form of regulations. Regulations that either require farmers to do things that do not make economic sense, prevent them from carrying out business practices that would maximize their earning potential, or set targets or limits for emissions. Targets for reductions in nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertilizer use is an example of the latter.
Attempting to reach sustainability goals through regulations will reduce the competitiveness of Canadian agriculture and reduce the fiscal sustainability of farming in Canada. Further, the regulatory approach will turn farmers from being partners in the sustainability journey into being opponents of government. Unfortunately, governments’ default position is often “more regulation”. This must be avoided if agriculture is to be a driver of Canada’s economy and continue to be an international leader and innovator in production practices.
The collaborative, incentive-based approach is not necessarily an easy path for governments to take. Canada is a large, diverse country, and innovative practices that drive fiscal and environmental sustainability in PEI may fall flat in Saskatchewan. There must be enough flexibility in approach to account for differences in climate, soils, and ecosystems across Canada. Provincial and local governments need to be engaged when determining which new practices and technology will work in a specific region. Which path is chosen, the carrot or the stick, is really a test of how seriously governments take advancing social, economic, and environmental sustainability. If they choose the carrot, we will see positive outcomes. If they chose the regulatory stick, they are more likely interested in the politics of being seen to try to advance the file, rather than actually facilitating progress.