By Matt McIntosh
How technology and knowledge can help overcome sustainability challenges
The United Nations has set 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to end poverty, reduce inequality, and tackle climate change. Many of the 17 goals have a lot to do with food and farming, including achieving zero hunger, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, and life on the land – the latter referring specifically to the protection and restoration of land ecosystems.
It’s a sizeable task, to be sure, and innovation in how we produce agricultural products is a key part of reaching these goals. There are a lot of people tackling the challenge, though, including many researchers across Canada.
On a global level, the term “hunger” refers less to the physical feeling, and more to the problem of not having adequate food and nutrition. This issue is endemic in many parts of the world, often in poorer regions, but also affects people here in Canada. Although a very complicated issue, improving access to high-quality and affordable food are two overarching factors in finding a resolution.
Producing more with less is one solution. Plant and animal science have helped, and will continue to help, this solution come to fruition. Thanks in part to effective plant breeding, for example, modern plants produce much higher yields – that is, much more harvestable crop per plant – than in decades and centuries past. In 1965, for example, Manitoba farmers grew an average of 1,640 kilograms of wheat per hectare. In 2019, the average was well over 4,000 kg. Similar gains are found with other crops throughout Canada.
Plant breeding can also help secure more reliable harvests. By breeding hardier crops, we can help reduce the risk of crop failures in the face of flood, drought, and other tough environmental conditions. This strategy is being applied across the world, on crops of all kinds, to help farmers manage unique environmental challenges.
What makes a sustainable community?
Sustainable community can mean many things. Protecting green spaces is one, and can include the restoration or preservation of forests, wetlands, parks, or any natural infrastructure which makes communities more resilient to weather and climactic challenges. Chemical controls – that is, the use of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides – can play a role in protecting green ecosystems and the people living nearby.
Take the case of phragmites as an example.
As Nature Conservancy Canada describes, phragmites is a non-native, invasive reed from Eurasia which is quickly spreading throughout North America. Found mostly in wetlands – themselves a critically important ecosystem for the prevention of floods – the towering phragmites plant can quickly take over, choking out all other life. It outcompetes native wetland plants, leaving frogs and turtles without vital habitat and blocking shoreline views and access. It also spreads very easily, both through seeds caught on the wind and vast root networks. The most effective way to control phragmites is a three-step combination of spraying with herbicide, mowing, and controlled burning.
Insecticides can play a role too, and indeed, have done so in the past. The threat posed to people by West Nile Virus and Malaria, for example, can be mitigated by using insecticides which specifically target mosquitoes.
How wasteful are we?
Canadians and other people living in wealthy countries have a bad habit of wasting food. Federal estimates from 2019 indicate Canadians waste about 20 per cent of all food produced in Canada each year. This number only refers to avoidable food losses at the end-consumer level.
Reducing food waste is only one part of improving responsible consumption, though. We also need to improve how we produce food. Using precision technologies like GPS, drones and satellite imaging, using just the right amount of fertilizer, and incorporating growing practices designed specifically to build soil, offer just a handful of solutions.
Growing a vegetable that might rot quickly, be too damaged to sell by the time it reaches grocery store shelves – or just doesn’t taste appealing – gets us nowhere. Here, again, breeding plants which last longer, can handle transportation, and which taste better, can solve these issues.
How can we sequester more carbon?
A more varied and extreme climate is bad news for agricultural production. However, there are plenty of opportunities to reduce the impact of climate change – and potentially, the trajectory of climate change itself – in the production of food and other agricultural products.
Approximately 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture (crop and livestock production), excluding emissions from the use of fossil fuels or from fertilizer production. But as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada describes, agriculture helps slow climate change by storing carbon on agricultural lands. Storing or sequestering carbon in soil as organic matter, perennial vegetation, and in trees reduces carbon dioxide amounts in the atmosphere. Adopting production practices which disturb the soil less, leave more green matter on fields, improve the feed efficiency of livestock – that’s how efficiently livestock grow based on what they eat – and many other strategies help farmers improve carbon capture and retention.
As mentioned previously, too, breeding more resilient crop varieties and hardier animals helps farmers and ranchers adapt to challenging and changing environmental conditions. The incorporation of different crops or livestock varieties can also contribute to the diversity of food produced in Canada, and other regions of the world.
Restoring our landscape
As the world’s population continues to grow, we will need to produce more food from less land and with fewer resources. Innovation will be critical. A combination of the right protections for natural ecosystems, as well as the ability to achieve our production needs without encroaching on them, is a win-win. Better crop varieties, better farm animal genetics, and improved production practices on the farm all play a role.
Incentives to restore landscapes, or match agricultural production with specific ecosystems, offer additional ways to ensure natural landscapes thrive. The charitable organization ALUS, for example, supports Ontario farmers who naturalize areas of their farms which are not suitable for crop production or raising livestock. Similarly, grassland stewardship programs are helping beef ranchers improve their cattle herds while protecting biodiversity and carbon sequestration on the Canadian prairie.
These are just two examples from two parts of the country, and two sectors in our food and farming system. There’s much more besides – and an even greater number of people working to improve the resilience of Canada’s agricultural and natural ecosystems. Find out more about two scientists doing just that.