Science and Technology Division
IS SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?
THE LAND RESOURCE BASE SUSTAINABLE?
Alternative Farming Systems
OF LAND USE CONFLICTS ON THE AGRICULTURAL LAND BASE
IMPORTANT IS TECHNOLOGY IN IMPLEMENTING SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?
IS THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT?
We can ignore the state
of global land and water resources only at our great peril. We tend to
assume that environmental degradation is a contemporary condition, but
there is historical evidence to show that cultures rise and fall on their
agricultural bases ability to support the rest of society. The balance
between population and agricultural productivity becomes more and more
precarious as a society becomes more complex and the drive for a continuing
food supply to support all the non-producers places more and more demands
upon land and water resources. The histories of the Mesopotamian, the
Mediterranean and the Mayan civilizations suggest that ever greater use
of resources without accompanying stewardship leads to societal disintegration.
We now face a scenario in
which global exploitation of resources has expanded a local environmental
phenomenon into a world-scale problem.(1)
The former Soviet Union may be the first modern example, since that countrys
economic breakdown came about largely because of the collapse of the food
supply and distribution system. This collapse has worldwide ramifications,
which the have-countries in particular realize, and are now scrambling
Already, 6% of the earths
surface is classified as extreme desert, and a further 29% is subject
to varying degrees of desertification.(2)
Any expansion in the extent or intensity of agricultural production would
require sustainable management of the land-water-vegetation system. The
next section looks at what this would entail.
IS SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?
Is sustainable agriculture
a philosophy, a system of farming or a management strategy? It has been
called all three, and each term adds a perspective which helps explain
the complexity of this multi-dimensional concept. From the difficulties
evident in gaining a consensus on the definition, it is obvious the term
has different meanings for different people.
Organic farmers tend to
equate "natural" with "sustainable" and consider that
their methods follow the tenets of a sustainable system. Their approach
goes beyond methodology to embrace a philosophy of co-existing with nature
rather than exploiting it.(3)
It involves benign designs and management procedures that work with natural
processes to conserve all resources, minimize waste and environmental
impact, and promote agro-ecosystem resilience.(4)
Mainstream farmers would
contest the claim that organic farming is the farming most closely associated
with sustainable agriculture, since many of them are also using methods
they consider conserve or enhance the natural resource base. This position,
upheld by federal and provincial governments, places organic agriculture
within a broad spectrum of agricultural methodologies that support the
environment. These range from conventional, and more intensive, methods
to alternatives such as biodynamic practices.(5)
Certainly, as one moves
from broad principles to actual farming practices, the differences between
approaches become less discernible. Methods of production are evolving
all the time, and the same ones may be practised along a continuum of
farming from mainstream to organic. Practices associated with the term
"sustainable" may include crop rotation, snow and stubble management,
annual legumes, minimum tillage, or reduction of inputs. Many pre-date
the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and prompt questions about
just how modern is the concept of sustainable production. For instance,
some sustainable proponents stress reduction of inputs as crucial, yet
in the dryland wheat areas of the west, fertilizers and pesticides were
not relied on until herbicide-based chemical fallowing was introduced
after World War II. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, however, shows that the
low-input system prevalent at the time proved unsustainable under adverse
It is somewhat ironic that there may be a certain reluctance to re-introduce
such things as crop rotation, shelter belts or fewer inputs, which, in
an era when most farmers have embraced "high tech" production,
are associated with outmoded practices. We must conclude that, while the
methods may differ, the modern term "sustainable" encompasses
the ability to maintain productive capability even in the face of economic
and climatic setbacks.
Expectations for sustainability
date from the 1987 publication of the Brundtland Report, Our Common
Future,(7) which popularized
the term "sustainable development." The report stressed that
present economic needs should not compromise future needs and that current
approaches that contribute to environmental degradation do not contribute
to sustainable development.
The World Commission on
Environment and Development ties economic survival to the health of our
natural resource endowment and the efficient use of scarce resources to
benefit both present and future generations. The natural resource base
remains crucial, but if the farmer is not receiving adequate returns on
capital and labour, his farming operation will not be viable even in the
short term. In the long term, if the economics seem right but the resource
base is being depleted, the operation will not be sustainable. Efforts
to ensure short-term viability must be tested against long-term durability
if farming is to meet the new goal of being sustainable.(8)
The Canadian government
has committed itself to sustainable agriculture as part of its ongoing
review of the agricultural system, instigated by current GATT (General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiations. Farmers themselves are already
taking steps in this direction. In January 1992, members of 50 Ontario
farm organizations came out in support of a farming environmental agenda.
As farmers, they felt that they were in the best position to encourage
farming activities that respect the environment. For widespread adoption,
however, it is important to know whether sustainable agriculture depends
upon a conducive socio-economic climate.(9)
If farmers cannot switch production systems without significantly changing
their attitude, pouring money into these new approaches will not bear
fruit. There is no question that establishing sustainable agriculture
will involve adjustments. It is fairly safe to assume that the more major
these are, the greater the likelihood that their adoption will require
a comparable adjustment in attitude. To take a case in point, sustainable
agriculture favours diversification over specialization. If this option
turns out to have a less attractive economic return, then it must be the
well-being of future generations or the well-being of the soil that motivates
the choice for a diversified production method. Until non-economic values
become as important as the bottom line, a farmer is unlikely to be motivated
to adopt the new approach. Consequently, stressing diversification without
understanding the key motivators and what rewards farmers find acceptable,
will not lead to its adoption.
In any event, the economic
incentive proves to be a fickle indicator of commitment to change. When
prices are low, interest in reducing costs is high and may lead to a reduction
in inputs or conservation tillage in order to save money. A turnaround
in prices may, however, result in an increased use of inputs, or more
cultivation of marginal land. A sustainable approach should go beyond
short-term considerations; nevertheless, a system which does not return
enough income for the farmer to stay in business is obviously not sustainable.(10)
THE LAND RESOURCE BASE SUSTAINABLE?
It has been established
that, on a global basis, there is not sufficient land capable of producing
food to meet the worlds requirements. In Canada, prime agricultural
lands (Class 1) occupy only one-half of 1% of the countrys
land area, and other such dependable land (Classes 2 and 3) covers about
4.5%. The remaining 2% of land suitable for agriculture is classified
as marginal for cropping purposes but does have some potential for forage-based
Not only is this arable
land base limited, its quality has been rapidly deteriorating as a result
of wind and water erosion, soil salinization, acidification, soil compaction
and loss of soil organic matter.(12)
Wind and water erosion affects about 11.5 million hectares of land
across the Prairies and salinization affects another 2 million hectares.(13)
In Quebec, 43% of cultivated cropland suffers from organic matter loss
and/or compaction, 18% from overfertilization, 12% from acidification,
and 10% from erosion. Concerns about soil erosion and water quality are
typical of Ontario, while the Maritime region is trying to address water
erosion and quality, and soil acidity.(14)
Each of these factors is
heavily influenced by the individual farmers choice of cropping
system and soil management. In many cases, soil salinity and acidity are
natural problems with which the farmer must contend.(15)
From the farmers point
of view, it would be useful to know to what extent it has been possible
to maintain production only at the expense of the resource base.(16)
The market economy tends to emphasize the value of current production
over the value of the land resource for future production. This ties the
farmer, particularly during adverse periods, to production practices that
have historically met the short-term test of profitability and minimized
risk, but that may fly in the face of long-term soil fertility. Yet it
pays farmers to respect the soil as a precious natural resource, since
they are so dependent on its fertility. Indeed, most farmers have a deeply
ingrained sense of stewardship for their land and would be unwilling to
sacrifice its quality for the sake of short-term gains.(17)
It makes little sense for any producer to exploit the land resource
for short-term profit if this is likely to compromise long-term food production
The impact of soil degradation
on production yields and costs may not be immediately apparent, given
changing cultivation practices or technological improvements. Soil erosion
is pervasive, rather like an unrelenting fatal disease that is not immediately
recognized but, once entrenched, is difficult to eradicate. While soil
degradation may be found in farming operations all across the country,
factors such as quality and composition of the soil, amount and distribution
of precipitation, length of frost-free periods, and other natural phenomena
obviously affect the amount and rate of deterioration.(18)
That is why human impacts on the soil are difficult to quantify and solutions
must be farm-based. What may be acceptable practice on one farm may not
be so across the farm boundary or county line. Farm practices largely
determine whether an agricultural system is sustainable,(19)
a subject that the next section will address.
Losses due to soil degradation
are not confined to the farm. Off-farm costs include water pollution,
sedimentation and flooding.(20)
Soil degradation may also result from any land disturbance, contamination,
sewage disposal and conversion of high-quality agricultural land to non-agricultural
uses.(21) Those losses
that stem from urban and industrial growth will be dealt with separately
later in the paper.
The three approaches covered
in this section represent two extremes of farming systems and a possible
compromise. Farming techniques are in a continual state of evolution so
that what is a typical methodology in one period is not necessarily so
a few years down the road. Sustainable farming is high-quality farming,
and does not depend on specific practices. The criterion is potential
for continuous viability, which may have to vary from farm to farm in
response to a particular situation.
After World War II, the
drive to increase food efficiency led to an energy-intensive agriculture,
based on inexpensive oil. The use of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic
fertilizers expanded, bringing about a corresponding increase in production.
Because much of this farming was done on a much larger (and probably more
mechanized) scale than formerly, it is sometimes referred to as "industrial"
farming. Many farmers continue to farm this way; however, some components
of this method are emerging as unsustainable. For instance, in the drylands
of the Prairies, essential parts of this system were intensive tillage
and summer fallow. Research studies now show that, used together, these
two farming methods encourage loss of water and organic matter, and leave
the soil in a high-risk condition. Consequently, the annual returning
of crop residues to the soil is now being advocated in order to improve
soil organic matter. Chemical fallow is being suggested as an alternative
to intensively-tilled fallow for conserving the soil and its water content.
Other adaptations to increase the sustainability of this type of agriculture
are diversification of crops and livestock, better weed and fertilizer
management, more careful capture of snow water, and return of cover crops,
shelter belts, woodlands and wetlands.(22)
An earlier section described
the applicability of some organic methods to sustainable agronomic practices.
This section explores the evolution of organic farming in North America
in view of the controversy about its connection with sustainable agriculture.
A 1980 United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA) study provided information on the characteristics
of organic farming. Practitioners were generally experienced farmers who
owned their land. In many cases, they had shifted from chemical to organic
farming for such reasons as considerations of soil health, food safety,
environmental protection, and soil and water conservation.(23)
They were generally seen as good managers dedicated to responsible husbandry
of their soil, crops and livestock. With few exceptions, they were following
acceptable soil, water, and energy conservation practices. Most had systematically,
and largely through their own efforts, developed crop and/or animal management
systems well adapted to their specific conditions, including climate,
soil, available capital, and accessible organic materials for recycling.(24)
Early research evidence
suggests organic agriculture has the potential to be profitable, given
a receptive market, in that premium prices and lower input costs tend
to offset the impact of lower yields.(25)
In Canada, although there is some organic grain farming, most organic
farmers are in niche marketing of organically grown vegetable and fruit
The Canadian organic movement
emerged during the 1950s, when several successful organic farms were established
and some publications appeared. By the 1970s, organic organizations in
six provinces were actively lobbying provincial departments to become
interested in sustainability. With a fair degree of regional variation,
the organic industry grew rapidly during this period and into the 1980s.
A number of certification associations were established across the country
which aimed to standardize terminology and make creditable organically
In December 1988, the federal
government began working with the organic industry on incorporating various
facets of the industry, including the term "organic," in legislation
and on assigning penalties for false labelling of organic produce. A regulatory
framework, in which an acceptable industry certification standard and
accreditation system can operate, is scheduled for public review on the
completion of industry certification standards and an accreditation model.
This process has been undertaken
by the industry through a coordinating body, the Canadian Organic Unity
Project (COUP), which has been developing certification standards and
an accreditation system for certifying agencies that will be recognized
not only in this country but also by Canadas trading partners. The
accreditation body will administer and update standards and accredit agencies
to certify organic products, using the Canadian organic standards and
trademark. The industry expected to finalize the development of certification
standards and an accreditation system by 31 January 1992; however,
this should come about during 1992. Federal legislation will be required
to put these systems in place.
At their meeting in July
1991, federal and provincial agriculture ministers agreed to proceed quickly
with national organic standards. The provinces would remain free to establish
their own regulations and trademarks, providing they did not inhibit interprovincial
trade of organic products.(27)
For many farmers, the term
"organic" has a distasteful ring, associated with the rejection
of time-honoured "high tech" farm practices. Such farmers also
resent the inference that somehow the latter practices are less safe than
organic ones. In the process of developing a regulatory system for organic
farming, the Canadian Agricultural Research Council Ad Hoc Committee
on Organic Food emphasized that the Canadian agri-food supply comes under
a stringent food inspection system which assures food safety, regardless
of the method of operation.(28)
Alternative Farming Systems
Although there will continue
to be farmers who, for philosophical or other reasons, refrain from using
synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and
livestock feed additives, many other farmers, for practical reasons, are
adjusting their techniques to suit todays requirements. Confronted
with low prices, reported off-farm pollution impacts, degraded soil, and
high production costs, contemporary farmers are seeking new ways to reduce
production costs and any perceived negative impacts of their methods of
farming. The term "alternative agriculture"(29)
has been coined to describe these new practices.
Many components of alternative
agriculture are derived from conventional agronomic practices and livestock
husbandry. According to the U.S. National Research Council, the hallmark
of an alternative farming approach is not the conventional approaches
it rejects but the innovative ones it includes.(30)
The Council goes on to say that, in contrast to conventional farming systems,
alternative systems more deliberately integrate and take advantage of
naturally occurring beneficial interactions. Alternative agriculture is
not, however, a single system; it covers a spectrum ranging from systems
that use no synthetic chemical inputs, to systems involving the prudent
use of pesticides or antibiotics to control specific pests or diseases.
Successful alternative farmers do what all good managers do ¾
they apply management skills and
information to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and maintain production
levels.(31) In the U.S.,
use of components of alternative systems was found to be quite widespread,
despite a lack of R&D support for developing practical solutions.(32)
Most farmers had adopted these practices gradually as they became more
knowledgeable about pest management, plant nutrition, the genetic and
biological potential of cultivars and livestock, and better management
Practices and principles
emphasized in alternative systems include: crop rotation, integrated pest
management, management systems that improve plant health and the ability
of crops to resist insect pests and diseases, soil and water conservation
tillage, and genetic improvement of disease-resistant crops and crops
that use nutrients more effectively.(34)
Many of these practices are already part of high-quality farming in Canada,
even though the term "alternative" in this sense is not yet
a household word. Certainly, alternative farming includes elements similar
to those stressed in the Report of the Federal-Provincial Agriculture
Committee on Environment Sustainability as being necessary if Canadian
agriculture is to become more sustainable.(35)
The U.S. study found that
there were technical and policy barriers to the adoption of alternative
technologies. The same barriers hinder sustainable agriculture itself,
a subject that will be pursued in later sections of the paper.
OF LAND USE CONFLICTS ON THE AGRICULTURAL LAND BASE
The World Watch Institute,
an influential Washington think-tank that focuses on farming and food
problems, considers that the increase in food production created by machines,
fertilizers and pesticides after World War II has reached a plateau and
will not be perpetuated. Growth in the worlds irrigated area has
slowed to a crawl and high-yielding, fertilizer-responsive crop varieties
are now planted on nearly all of the suitable land.(36)
This suggests the need to protect the farmland that is left.
It falls to the farmers,
who may consider land as their retirement fund, to conserve its benefits
for future generations. Yet it does not at present pay farmers to hold
on to their land, particularly near urban centres, where much of prime
agricultural land is located, when its use for development makes it so
much more valuable than its use for agriculture. There is no incentive
for land transfer from one generation to another to ensure that the land
stays in production.
Only a small amount of agricultural
land is lost to urban development, but it is usually the best agricultural
land and it is likely lost for all time.(37)
Between 1966 and 1986, 307,500 hectares of land, of which 58% was prime
agricultural land, went to urban expansion.(38)
To replace equivalent agricultural production from lower class land
would require twice the land area. Some provinces have moved to restrict
speculative uses of agricultural land. These include Prince Edward Island,
Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia.
Only about 4% of the land
in British Columbia is suitable for agriculture and it is in areas of
the greatest urban pressure. This was perhaps the main reasoning behind
the passing of the Land Commission Act in 1973. The Land Commission
has had moderate success in designating land as agricultural land and
restricting non-agricultural uses.
In the Province of Ontario,
the climate and the soils of the Niagara region are uniquely suited for
growing tender fruits and in the past provided Canadian consumers with
reasonably-priced produce. Cheaper products entering Canada from the U.S.
have made it increasingly difficult for Ontario producers to compete.
A regional plan that has been in place since 1981 is threatening to come
unstuck. The Food Land Guidelines issued by the Ontario government
in 1978 advised municipalities on the designation of agricultural lands
in their official regional plans. In the Fruit Belt, agricultural zoning
protected good growing areas and redirected development to the poorer
agricultural lands south of the Niagara Escarpment. This approach worked
reasonably well when development pressures were not intense and agricultural
prices kept up the value of the land reserved for agriculture. As discrepancies
between agricultural and developmental land values grow, however, preserving
the land is not preserving the farmer. Many farmers are now financially
unable to work their land and are seeking to sell off some parcels in
order to continue farming the remainder. In a move to help farmers, the
Niagara Region Council voted in the fall of 1991 to allow such sales,
but the plan was blocked by the provincial government in an effort to
protect the declining farmland base.(39)
Locking farmers into a lifestyle they cannot afford does not appear to
be a long-term solution.(40)
This is one of the problems of agricultural land zoning since it restricts
the use of the land without compensation.
Another solution being promoted
in the Niagara Fruit Belt is resort to conservation easements. This provides
the farmer with compensation, an essential part of any zoning solution.
The idea is that the farmer receives compensation for development restrictions
placed on his land. While this may work out to less than fee simple, it
may represent a large percentage of this value. Under such an arrangement,
the farmer voluntarily sells the development rights to land to which he
or she retains title. The conservation easement runs with the land either
in perpetuity or for a specified period of time. Farmers can use the money
to pay down debt, reinvest in the farm, or for other purposes. They can
even sell the land, although its use is limited to farming and open space.(41)
Such a purchase of development
rights to preserve farmland and open space has been used in nine U.S.
states with moderate success in protecting agriculture in urban fringe
areas. Advantages of the scheme are its fairness to farmers and its potential
for long-term preservation of vulnerable farmland. Disadvantages are its
cost, administrative cumbersomeness, and the fact that it is voluntary.
It is clear that at some
stage there will have to be a decision in this country as to whether agricultural
land warrants saving; if so, in order to preserve it, effective instruments
will need to be developed. Even though local authorities must ultimately
take the measures to keep land in production, the issue will have to be
resolved at the national level. It is not just a case of preserving fertile
land, but rather the general issue of food policy and the priority placed
upon food security. The production of food and fibre is an irreplaceable
activity and demands a predictable future.(42)
A pertinent example is the
outcome of the extensive purchase of farmland to build Mirabel Airport.
In 1969, when Mirabel was proposed, 38,900 hectares of land were expropriated
for the construction of the airport and its adjoining industrial park.
Most of this land consisted of Class 1 and 2 soils. Over 10 years,
32,800 hectares were eventually returned to various individuals and municipalities.
It is estimated that about 75% has returned to agricultural use because
agriculture remains the most viable economic activity. In retrospect,
it can be seen that the decisions that took this land out of farmers
hands and made its future uncertain for so many years, were not able to
offer any more viable economic solution; moreover, they took so long to
resolve that they very likely contributed to the detriment of the quality
of the land base.
It is interesting to note
that at about this time the Quebec government introduced legislation to
protect agricultural land. Land use pressures, notably within the Montreal-Quebec
corridor, led that government in 1978 to pass the Provincial Act to
Preserve Agricultural Land. It restricted the non-agricultural development
of land within designated agricultural regions. Three thousand hectares
of land returned to agricultural production following passage of the bill.(43)
Agriculture itself sometimes
has negative impacts on adjoining land. To control these impacts and to
protect farmers from nuisance claims for any odour, noise or dust resulting
from normal farm operations, three provinces have enacted protective legislation.
In Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, legislation provides for dispute settlement,
where disagreements arise over the impacts of farm operations.(44)
Other land use conflicts
have no such mechanisms for dispute resolution and yet they can be equally
difficult to resolve. Each year, farmers play host to hordes of hungry
migratory waterfowl, which cause millions of dollars in damages as they
head to their winter or summer abodes.(45)
Farmers, in their turn, modify the rural landscape in ways that have impacts
on wildlife, as they co-opt marginal land for production and drain wetlands
to facilitate cropping.(46)
Often, this is the result of policies that encourage production at the
expense of retaining wetlands and grasslands. The area being farmed in
the Prairies, for instance, is reported to be over four times that cropped
at the beginning of the century. The wheat area alone has almost doubled
since 1950, and total agricultural land has increased by almost 50% since
The U.S. has used a number
of acreage reduction and conservation programs to reduce production on
erodible soils and protect fragile wetlands. Conservation measures are
a prerequisite to receiving support payments for expanded or marginal
production areas in the Sodbuster and Conservation Compliance programs.
Farmers also lose the benefits of support payments when they convert wetlands
to agricultural production. A voluntary program, the Conservation Reserve,
places qualifying land into permanent, soil-conserving grass and trees
for a 10-year contract period. Payment is per acre on a bid basis, and
owners are responsible for maintaining the conservation cover at their
own expense, although certain types of recreational leases are permitted.
The program even covers buffer strips along waterways.(48)
A program modelled on the
Conservation Reserve Program has been developed in the Canadian Prairies.
The Permanent Cover Program encourages the replacement of cash crops by
cover crops. Under this program, landowners can bid for a one-time payment
to convert cropland to permanent cover. Bids for 20-year commitments are
in the order of $40 an acre, with another $20 or so for seeding costs.
The Prairie provincial governments also offer habitat incentives through
their wildlife agencies, which are generally richer than the federal program,
but always below the agricultural value of the land.(49)
Such programs are wildlife-oriented rather than designed to support integrated
To be more effective, these
programs would have to be designed to facilitate cropland changes and
to provide permanent protection unrelated to fluctuations in commodity
prices. As long as other policies pay more to keep the land in production,
these environmentally protective policies will not have much impact. They
appear to provide a greater incentive to low-income producers, offering
an alternative to crop production as an economic opportunity for the land.(51)
Nevertheless, farmers need an indication from governments that agricultural
land has value not just to produce food but also to safeguard our natural
resource heritage, whether it be wildlife or soils.(52)
Practices to protect wetlands
or control pests and weeds on land set aside from production will not
be widely adopted by landowners unless they are easy to implement, inexpensive,
consistent with other farm practices, or require little maintenance and
monitoring. Innovative research and extension methods will enhance adoption
and success of good management programs. The next section looks at this
IMPORTANT IS TECHNOLOGY IN IMPLEMENTING SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?
Technology transfer is here
defined as the application of scientific knowledge (education and research)
to agriculture in order to fill desirable national goals, for example,
competitiveness, environmental sustainability and food self-sufficiency.
This is broader than the traditional interpretation, in which the term
refers to the transfer of technology from a company or a country for commercial
use elsewhere. It is seen here as development, communication and implementation
of technological advances primarily in the form of research, but also
of demonstrations and other technology initiatives.(54)
Total annual expenditures
on Canadian research and development for the agriculture and food sector
are reported to be approximately $595 million, of which just over
$156 million go to technology transfer.(55)
A very elaborate system
of over 400 committees oversees research and development for the agriculture
and food system. It covers regional and commodity interests and performs
a watchdog and information function. Membership appears to be largely
determined by position and is drawn from researchers, extension personnel,
industry and producers or commodity groups. While producers are members,
however, their numbers are reported to represent only approximately 4%.(56)
A useful part of the information
exchange system is a data base, in existence since 1974, which consists
of all the more than 4,400 R&D projects carried out by government,
industry and the universities in this country.(57)
Since 1974, the principal
coordinator of all this information has been the Canadian Agricultural
Research Council (CARC), a body at arms length from the federal
government, which monitors the adequacy of agricultural research in Canada
and fosters the development of a viable agri-food industry that can meet
Canadas domestic and export needs. CARC reports its findings to
the Canadian Agriculture Services Coordinating Committee (CASCC), which
has been functioning since 1932 as the focal point for agricultural research
in Canada. According to its Chairman, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture
Canada, "CASCC has consciously addressed its way of doing business
in order to keep up with the demands of agriculture."(58)
It is natural that the Deputy
Minister should be so closely involved with this research committee system,
since Agriculture Canada is the largest supporter of research and development
in this country, contributing just under half of the funding involved.
Functions that might be considered pivotal to sustainability (soils, management,
agro-meteorology, environmental quality) are reported, however, to receive
only 22% of total research effort.(59)
Omissions are said to include the biological and social sides of agriculture.
There are virtually no studies that take a systems or an agro-ecological
approach, or relate types of farm practices to their environmental impacts.
Baseline data on soil, water, air and food are reportedly not yet complete
enough for us to measure and monitor our progress,(60)
although the Research Branch of Agriculture Canada is in the process
of establishing a sophisticated information system, which, over the next
few years, will fill existing gaps.
According to a paper commissioned
by the Science Council of Canada as part of its own sustainable agriculture
study, management studies within the agricultural research establishment
tend to be single-commodity or production-oriented. Even economic information
about environmental sustainability practices is lacking. Finally, the
crucial role of the family farm in the viability of rural communities
and the broader social and ethical issues connected with agriculture(61)
appear to fall outside the mandate of the agricultural research community.(62)
It has been suggested that
historical reductionist approaches do not lead easily to an integrated
research system. Without knowledge of a system that ensures sustainability,
it is very hard to gauge whether research being done in isolation is actually
supporting a sustainable approach.(63)
The federal governments
role has been described(64)
as being to create the environment in which researchers can generate new
information and then translate it into a form that will enable extension
agents to understand fully its approach and application. This information
must be able to be understood and used at the farm level, an approach
that has been described as the "bench to barn" approach.(65)
If scientists were more involved in the delivery of basic research, this
would probably be more likely to happen. Evidently, in the U.S. extension
is tied much more closely to college R&D. It is suggested that more
co-operative ventures between the federal government and the universities
here could likewise ensure that basic research is not piecemeal and is
moving towards a systems approach. A caution should be added, however,
that regional differences are important and must be considered.
Regional differences are
significant across the country and will have to be addressed in terms
of priorities and planning of research. Farmers need more understanding
of local environmental conditions so that they "can integrate their
cropping practices in such a way as to take advantage of the resources
nature provides and can behave as good stewards."(66)
Sustainable agriculture requires high levels of management skills and
an intimate knowledge of available resources, obtained through both experience
and training. The Science Council suggests viewing research extension
and implementation along a continuum as being an appropriate and sustainable
approach.(67) If the
research system operates in this way, it will be much easier to generate
a two-way information flow to ensure that the technology transferred is
IS THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT?
The federal government has
developed criteria to assess whether existing policies and programs diminish
the long-term capacity of renewable resources to meet future food needs.
This implies encouraging farming technologies that conserve the natural
resource base, promote diversification and crop rotation, minimize air
and water pollution, make use of environmentally safe pest control strategies,
minimize land use conflicts and the use of marginal lands, and help preserve
It follows that new policies
and programs should be designed and delivered to take into account the
on-farm and off-farm environmental costs. In this way, environmental sustainability
will be built into new government approaches. The federal government appears
to be using the new safety net programs as tests of this approach. The
enabling legislation for the two programs, GRIP (Gross Revenue Insurance
Program) and NISA (Net Income Stabilization Account), calls for environmental
assessments to be carried out within two years of a federal-provincial
agreements coming into force.(68)
In an area of concurrent
jurisdiction like agriculture, such a direction calls for a co-operative
response. The Federal-Provincial Soil and Water Accords have been identified
as a means of managing the land base in a sustainable way. If the Accord
Management Committees could be broadly structured in representation and
focus, they might then be in a position to coordinate the activities needed
to ensure sustainable approaches.
Input from the producers
themselves is crucial to this process since making productivity and environmental
sustainability compatible is dependent on the skills of farmers.
It is government, however,
which sets the policy framework for a stable industry.(69)
By its support and education and regulation policies, government collectively
gives a signal to industry about its goals, which are too often set at
the expense of long-term resource conservation and environmental management.
Historically, Canadian agricultural
policies have concentrated on the economic feasibility of Canadas
farming. Production subsidies have provided incentives to expand, mechanize
and specialize for competitive purposes.(70)
Practices have been encouraged which have contributed to the degradation
of our soil and water. Programs have linked benefits to the volume of
commodity produced. This has tended to reduce the risk of specialization
and encouraged the use of inputs.
All levels of government
have tended to support the market-competitive approach, pressured by producer
associations which have been effective policy advocates and attracted
wide government support.(71)
The national universal programs have discouraged activities (e.g.,
conservation) that could drive up production costs over those in another
province. Though provinces have the wherewithal to offer local inducements
to ensure sustainability, especially in view of their jurisdiction over
land use, and management of water, air and soil, like the federal government,
they have been more concerned with risk protection and other safety nets.(72)
Since the prime responsibility
for the environmental aspects of agriculture falls to the provinces through
their regulation of public lands, property rights and municipal affairs,
the main federal power within a province is through use of its spending
power to provide incentives and services that promote environmental sustainability.(73)
The federal government can also exercise powers in interprovincial
and international matters; traditionally, it has also assumed primary
responsibility for research. The provinces jurisdiction over education
makes them responsible for disseminating the results of that research
Soil and water resources
have been treated customarily as a matter of shared, rather than provincial,
jurisdiction, perhaps because they are a vital part of agriculture and
also because initial cooperation dates to the 1930s and disaster relief,
always a federal responsibility.(75)
The federal and provincial government tend to work with each other and
with farmers on resource projects at the individual farm or regional level.
Good examples of such cooperation are SWEEP (Soil and Water Environmental
Enhancement Program) and the Land Stewardship Program in Ontario, both
of which address local problems.
SWEEP is designed to improve
soil and water quality in southwestern Ontario by reducing phosphorous
loading in the Lake Erie basin from cropland runoff, and arresting soil
erosion that contributes to water pollution. The federal government researches,
develops and evaluates the technology, and gives technical assistance
to farmers. A federal-provincial committee of agricultural and environmental
representatives manages SWEEP.
The present Land Stewardship
Program is a four-year, $38 million initiative to encourage conservation.
It gives financial assistance to farmers for conservation practices, research,
courses and programs, and is administered by the Ontario Soil and Crop
Improvement Association, a private organization to which the Ontario Government
delegated the task.
The apparent success of
and participation in these programs suggest that the constitutional and
institutional framework is not a barrier when both levels of government
are committed to remedial action. Indeed, land management and land zoning
issues, and reform of municipal assessment and taxation policies were
all discussed by the Federal-Provincial Committee on Environmental Sustainability,
reinforcing the fact that constitutional delineations of authority are
not obstacles to agro-environmental policy reform.(76)
The definition of sustainable
agriculture adopted by the Federal-Provincial Agriculture Committee on
Environmental Sustainability embodies the dilemma facing todays
agriculture.(77) To be
sustainable, agriculture must be at one and the same time economically
viable for the present generation of farmers, and environmentally sustainable
for future generations. This adds a long-term dimension to the present
generations planning, and it changes the uni-dimensional economic
focus into one that integrates environmental and possibly even social
objectives.(78) The report
does not offer any guidance as to how short-term economic viability may
be reconciled with long-term conservation.
It is clear, however, that
farm practices are becoming suspect if they appear to impinge on societys
goals of high quality, safe food, and a clean environment, free of ground
and surface water contamination. Increasing pressure is likely to be placed
on the present generation of farmers in the name of their descendants.
Farmers are now being held responsible not only for on-farm impacts but
also for off-farm land and water degradation. Todays farmers are
saying, however, that they cannot afford to carry out some of the remedial
measures required to build up the natural resource capital base.
It will fall to government,
therefore, to give more priority to environmental and social elements
by introducing policies and funding to assure a new balance between economic,
social and environmental claims. Governments must share some responsibility
for encouraging the production-driven farming practices that have contributed
to our present environmental state.
The federal government has
already indicated its intention to integrate environmental, economic and
social factors into its safety net programs.(79)
An economic dimension is also being added to environmental research programs.
Trade-offs will, however, be inevitable.
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William Lockeretz, "Major Issues Confronting Sustainable Agriculture,"
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World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future,
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McEwen and Milligan (1991), p. 18.
Lockeretz (1990), p. 429.
Ibid., p. 431.
N.R. Richards, "Historic and Current Activities in Soil Conservation,"
In Search of Soil Conservation Strategies in Canada, Conference
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of Canada, Ottawa, 1987, p. 34.
J.C. Gilson, "Federal Policies and Soil Conservation," ibid.,
Parliament, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Agriculture, Minutes
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Agriculture Canada, Research Branch, Report to the House of Commons
Committee on Agriculture on Recent Advances in Soil and Water Degradation
Research, 9 March 1991, p. 1, 4, 6.
H.D. McRorie, "Farm Production and Its Relationship to Soil Conservation,"
from In Search of Oil Conservation Strategies in Canada (1987),
D. Knoerr, "Conservation Farming in the 1980s," ibid.,
McRorie, ibid., p. 91.
Knoerr, ibid., p. 92.
Canadian Organic Growers, Brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee
on Agriculture, January 1991, p. 1.
Gilson, from In Search of Soil Conservation Strategies in Canada
(1987), p. 43.
McRorie, ibid., p. 92.
D.A. Rennie, "Contemporary Agriculture ¾
Evolving into Sustainability,"
Sowing the Seeds for Sustainable Agriculture, Vol. 1, Proceedings
of the Travelling Symposium, 11-16 February 1991, p. 5-6.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Study Team on Organic Farming, Report
and Recommendations on Organic Farming, Washington, 1980, p. 11.
Ibid., p. 78.
Agri-Features Press Release, p. 7.
Stuart B. Hill and Rod J. MacRae, Organic Farming in Canada, Presentation
to the 7th IFOAM Scientific Conference, Budapest, Hungary, 27-30 August
1990, p. 3-4.
Agriculture Canada, Progress Report on Development of Organic Certification
(1991), p. 3.
Ibid., p. 1.
U.S. National Research Council, Alternative Agriculture, National
Academy Press, Washington, D.C., p. 3.
Ibid., p. 3.
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 9.
Ibid., p. 5.
Federal-Provincial Agriculture Committee on Environmental Sustainability,
Report to Ministers of Agriculture, Ottawa, 30 June 1990,
Ottawa Citizen, 11 November 1990.
Hugh J. Gaylor, Land-Use Conflict and Sustainable Agriculture on the
Rural-Urban Fringe, Brief presented to the House of Commons Standing
Committee on Agriculture, 21 October 1991, p. 3.
D.W. Anderson, C.J. Roppel and R.M. Gray, Sustainability in Canadian
Agriculture, Paper prepared for the Science Council, August 1991,
Canadian Press Release, 31 January 1991.
Gaylor (1991), p. 6.
Thomas L. Daniels, "The Purchase of Development Rights ¾ Preserving
Agricultural Land and Open Space," Journal of the American Planning
Association, Vol. 57, No. 4, American Planning Association,
Chicago, Autumn 1991, p. 421.
Agriculture Canada and Alberta Agriculture, Sowing the Seeds for Sustainable
Agriculture, Vol. 1 and 2, Proceedings of the Travelling Symposium,
11-16 February 1991, p. 1.
Anderson et al. (1991), p. 36.
For example, Ontarios Farm Practices Protection Act, of 1988.
Western Producer, 21 November 1991, p. 7.
John Girt, Common Ground, A Report commissioned by Wildlife Habitat
Canada, 1990, p. vi.
Ibid., p. 4.
Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), Ecological
Impacts of Federal Conservation and Cropland Reduction Programs, Report
No. 117, September 1990, p. 5.
Girt (1990), p. 32.
Ibid., p. 42.
Ibid., p. 34.
Ibid., p. 7 and 38; and Carole Giangrande, "Agriculture and
Sustainable Development," The Guelph Seminars of Sustainable Development,
S.G. Hilts and A.M. Fuller, eds., School of Rural Planning and Development,
University of Guelph, Guelph, 1990, p. 56.
CAST (1990), p. 1.
Canadian Agricultural Research Council, Partnerships: A Focus on Technology,
Conference Proceedings, Montreal, 4-5 June 1991, p. 49 and 58.
McEwen (1991), p. 4.
Ibid., p. 12.
McEwen, ibid., p. 10.
CARC, p. 3.
McEwen (1991), p. 15.
CARC (1991), p. 61.
Ibid., p. 62.
McEwen (1991), p. 16-17.
Ibid., p. 21.
CARC (1991), p. 48.
Ibid., p. 54.
Science Council of Canada Committee on Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable
Agriculture: Some Policy Concerns, A Paper prepared for a workshop
co-sponsored by the Canadian Agricultural Research Council, Sidney, B.C.,
29 August 1991, p. 21.
Ibid., p. 20.
Agriculture Canada, Building Partnerships, Growing Together, September-October
1991, p. 3.
Federal-Provincial Agriculture Committee on Environmental Sustainability,
Report, p. 33.
Grace Skogstad, Political Institutions and a Sustainable Agriculture,
University of Toronto, 1991, p. 4.
Ibid., p. 8.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 12.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., p. 17.
Federal-Provincial Agriculture Committee on Environmental Sustainability
(1990), p. 11.
Ibid., p. 3.
House of Commons, Standing Committee on Agriculture, Minutes of Proceedings
and Evidence, Issue No. 7, 8 October 1991, p. 5.