Enlightened Ag

Posted in: Global Ag     

In a perfect world, some say a middle path between conventional and organic agriculture could improve soil health, lower input costs and sustainably feed the world’s growing population. The notion sounds good; could it ever happen?

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As with many of the contentious issues swirling around agriculture these days (think: GMOs, gluten-free, hormone-free), the great organic debate has fervent supporters on both sides.

Each contingent has their scientists, research findings and seemingly irrefutable rationale to back their point.

On the other side, organic proponents argue that the growing use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides by conventional farmers is throwing the planet’s soil out of its natural equilibrium, creating resistant strains and building a deep reliance on these products, while driving up producers’ input costs.On one side are the conventional producers, arguing that in order to meet the growing food, fuel and fibre needs of an ever-expanding population, they need to use synthetic inputs to optimize production. Most of them would argue this is being done in a sustainable manner.

In July, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced plans to closely monitor soil health around the world, especially in Africa and South America, which have the greatest potential for agricultural expansion.

Participants at a July 24 meeting of the Global Soil Partnership heard that some 33 percent of the world’s soil is already moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, urbanization and chemical pollution.

“Without soils we cannot sustain life on earth and where soil is lost, it cannot be renewed on a human timeline,” Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General, said in a UN news release. “The current escalating rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.”

Clearly, the great organic debate will not be resolved any time soon.

In the meantime, one organic farmer who spent the first half of his career selling chemicals for a global plant science company says the answer may lie somewhere in the middle.


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The Middle Way

“What the world needs for its own sustainability — and for the long-term health of the soil — is a marriage between organics and conventional agriculture,” says Yasir Syed, who operates a 6,500-acre organic farm near Truax, Saskatchewan and owns an organic fertilizer company, Biofert Manufacturing Inc., based in Chilliwack, B.C..

“If you are able to add natural stimulants and conditioners that create a healthy environment for the root, it will require less chemical inputs. Plus, each pound of nutrient will go further because the root will be more self-sufficient at mining its own nutrients from the soil.”

Syed’s road to Saskatchewan has taken many turns. He moved to the province in 2002 from Pakistan after a series of events caused him to re-examine his life, and his work doing sales and training for a global fertilizer conglomerate.

“I sold 1.4 million tonnes of fertilizer in one year — I was their top trainer and consultant — but I realized that chemical fertilizers alone are not the future,” he recalls. “In a continuous cropping pattern, combined with the absence of adding any organic supplements, the soil tends to become totally dependent on chemical fertilizer.”

Not all agrologists would agree with this assertion — nonetheless, frustrated by consistently escalating sales targets that Syed knew would result in the steady increase of farm chemicals globally, he quit his job.

Syed decided to move to Canada and start an organic farm, something his father had dabbled in in Pakistan for many years.

Organics has some lessons that could benefit conventional agriculture, Syed says.

He isn’t suggesting some widespread switch to organic, but he would like to see the industry address what he perceives as overuse of synthetic inputs, with not enough attention given to soil supplements and natural inoculants that could preserve soil health while working alongside synthetic inputs.

“Unfortunately, over the last few decades as chemical fertilizers have become so big, the two schools of thought are drifting further apart,” says Syed. “On one hand you have the high-tech conventional growers who totally depend on chemicals, and on the other, you have hard-core organic growers who [stick to the organic rules and] look down on everyone else.”

Syed recommends a balance of both. Indeed, many of the largest farm chemical companies are increasingly investing in technologies and research into biological pesticides, soil amendments and other non-synthetic crop input options.

“Conventional farmers need to adopt a route that also takes into account long-term health of their soil,” says Syed. “Unless science is brought in to organics these challenges cannot be handled,” says Syed. “

In the end, Syed says he is aware that his philosophy is a long way from becoming reality, but argues that it’s time to begin the discussion.

“I am bound to follow the organic guidelines because my farm is certified organic, but what I profess is for the wider world to come to an organic-based approach, which creates a union between chemical inputs and organic inputs.”

Common Ground

In fact, Syed’s plea is not that different from a message Ted Menzies has been preaching in recent years.

The president and CEO of CropLife Canada, the trade association representing the plant science industry, says he also advocates greater cooperation between organic and conventional farmers.

“I have reached out to some organic organizations recently and spoken to them about how both conventional and organic producers are producing food — we should be able to coexist without trying

We need to dispel the myth that modern agriculture is harmful to the environment and harmful to public safety

to climb over the shoulders of the other saying I am right and you are wrong,” says Menzies. “It should be about how can we better inform the consumer, rather than frighten them.”

Menzies, a longtime Alberta farmer and former Member of Parliament, says food production is too important for farmers to be condemning one another for their chosen method of production.

“The two can operate side by side,” he asserts. “It’s a choice, just like consumers can choose if they want organic.”

The two can operate side by side

Regarding the theory that synthetic inputs destroy soil health, Menzies says his own experience during the early days on his southern Alberta farm proved otherwise.

“I was farming 30 years ago on land I bought that was summer fallowed with very little use of chemicals,” he recalls. “It wasn’t producing very much — salinity was high and there was low organic matter. I started intensive cropping, soil testing every year, adding the nutrients that were called for and putting all the crop residue back into the ground. The soil improved exponentially, so to say my method of farming was degrading the soil is a complete falsehood. It was in the best shape it had been in in years.”

On both sides of this debate, nearly all players agree that more science and better education of both the producers and the consumer is what is needed to bridge the two worlds and encourage cooperation.

“Both sides need to be open-minded,” says David Hansen, president and CEO of Canterra Seeds. “I’m all for organic as an option — it’s about choice — but we need to dispel the myth that modern agriculture is harmful to the environment and harmful to public safety.”

In response to the assertion that there’s not enough science and research funding in organics, Menzies says that may be changing. On August 12, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz announced that Ottawa would invest $8 million in supporting research into organic agriculture in Canada.

This is a good first step. Agriculture, like every other sector, does not operate in a perfect world — but that doesn’t mean that a collaborative blend between organic and conventional farming couldn’t go a long way toward achieving some of the goals that farmers on both sides aspire to.

There’s no quick fix, and most experts agree the biggest hurdle is fear-based marketing tactics and lack of awareness among consumers.

But as Syed, Hansen and Menzies say, the goal need not be immediate change, but rather the start of a new, collaborative dialogue that will bring the two sides closer together.


About the Author
Tracy Tjaden

Tjaden is a Canadian journalist who has spent the majority of her career writing and editing for magazines, primarily business-related titles.

She grew up on a farm near Winnipeg, worked at several newspapers in Canada before specializing in magazines, with a focus on business, finance and agriculture.

Tjaden was Editor of BCBusiness Magazine in Vancouver and Managing Editor of a financial magazine in New York City before returning to Winnipeg. She is currently editor of the AgAdvance Journal and agadvance online, and can be reached at ttjaden@theagadvance.com


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