On Canadian farms, something important is growing – farmers are turning to regenerative agriculture.
The details are sometimes complex, and methods are constantly evolving as science learns more, but the concept is simple, says Gabrielle Bastien, founder and co-director of Regeneration Canada, a national not-for-profit organization that champions regenerative farming practices.
“In essence it means working with nature as opposed to working against it,” she says. “It’s a set of farming principles and practices that regenerate the health of the soil.”
These practices include cover cropping (planting to cover soil rather than harvesting), promoting crop diversity, doing more to protect watersheds, minimizing pesticides and integrating livestock into farms rather than having the animals graze in separate fields.
Many farmers are also practising no-till farming – placing seed and nutrients in a relatively undisturbed seedbed to protect the soil surface and prevent erosion.
“Moving toward minimum or no-till is one of the easiest first steps, but it does take time and there’s a cost involved,” said Megz Reynolds, Saskatchewan farmer and agriculture advocate.
Bastien and Reynolds made their comments as part of a webinar panel called Regenerative Agriculture: Supporting Sustainable Food Production, presented by the Globe and Mail in partnership with McCain Foods.
In addition to supporting healthier crops and in some cases more productivity, regenerative practices are also important because they enable farmers to sequester carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, Bastien said.
Greenhouse gases contribute to the climate emergency that is causing global warming and wild weather swings, and agriculture is responsible for 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the federal government
Fellow panelist Max Kouene, president and chief executive officer of McCain Foods said the food-producing giant is now working with some 3,600 farmers in Canada and the 15 additional countries where it operates to support the move to more sustainable agricultural practices.
“In Canada, it’s mostly family farms. Recently we decided to accelerate our support for regenerative solutions,” he said.
McCain’s practices, such as crop rotation and minimizing soil compacting, improve soil health and boost productivity without relying on chemical fertilizers or pesticides, he explained.
“Our biggest push is leveraging the power of technology,” he added. McCain is helping farmers gain access to and deploy high-tech equipment that can measure which regenerative agricultural practices are working best, he said.
Regeneration Canada has developed an online map showing farms in Canada that use one or more of seven key regenerative practices: reduced tillage, soil cover, encouraging biodiversity, agroforestry and perennials (planting in farmed areas), organic inputs and integrating livestock into farm operations.
“There’s a difference between organic farming and regenerative agriculture,” said Ann-Marie Saunders, co-owner of Saunders Family Farm and Vineyard in Beamsville, Ont., whose farm practices both.
Regenerative agriculture is much wider than organics, which focuses on avoiding chemicals and pesticides, which can work against invasive species, but also harm the environment, she explained.
“We have a personal connection [to regenerative agriculture],” Saunders said.
“My parents purchased the farm in the 60s, and during the 70s we had more tillage and used more pesticides and herbicides. Mom developed Parkinson’s disease and we bet that exposure to these chemicals had contributed to her illness. That was the main impetus for us to change our ways.”
Kouene said that one role for McCain Foods is to work with farmers to make the move to regenerative farming because most farms it works with are family-owned and change involves big risk.
“It’s clear that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for many farmers. We want to help them through the transition, where their crop yields may be dropping, so they can reach the time when they have lower input costs and higher yields,” he said.
This might also mean that food costs more because farmers need a fair return, Reynolds warned. “We need to change the way we look at food ask whether what we do is sustainable.”
Farmers and companies like McCain Foods can’t do it alone, Kouene added.
“We want to engage governments and the financial sector too. There’s not one party that will solve this; everyone has to look at the value of food.”