Talks about sustainable agriculture generally result in tech companies and organic farmers talking badly to each other, and their words show basic ideological differences between big tech-rich entrepreneurial farming and more humanistic small-scale operations.
The British Columbia government is now trying to convince the two sides to get along in an attempt to make its food supply more sustainable.
At a conference organized by the Ministry of Agriculture last week, proponents of both approaches shared the stage to discuss how to make regenerative agriculture more widespread throughout the province. Regenerative agriculture is a loose collection of techniques aimed at improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and boosting biodiversity.
While regenerative practices have sustained many small-scale, indigenous, and organic farms for centuries, the approach has seen increasing interest in recent years. Large food companies like McCain Foods and General Mills have committed to using regenerative practices on their farms in an attempt to reduce their environmental footprint.
BC is the first province to explicitly incorporate regenerative agriculture into its food and agricultural policies.
“We (want) to normalize the idea of regenerative agriculture,” said Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.
There is a catch: no one agrees on what exactly regenerative agriculture means.
“Regenerative agriculture is more of a mindset,” said Cedric MacLeod, New Brunswick agronomist and farmer.
He explained that regenerative agriculture encompasses any practice that supports soil health, essential for growing healthy, nutrient-rich crops. Healthy soils also reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, sequester carbon, reduce erosion, and help cushion the impacts of extreme weather.
However, unlike organic certification, a third-party designation that requires farmers to use specific agricultural practices and that often enshrines social and cultural values, regenerative farmers are not limited in the technologies they use or the social and economic values. supporters.
Critics say that opens the door to dangerous possibilities where high-tech regenerative agriculture could become an obstacle for companies to avoid change.
Regenerative agriculture is booming right now. But what exactly it is and what role technology should play in its future are up for debate. #Agriculture #Sustainable Food #Food #BC
Chief among their concerns is the ability of technology-driven regenerative agriculture to transform the economic model that drives industrial agriculture. That model is profitable for only a few very large farms that typically grow staple crops, explained Irena Knezevic, a Carleton University professor who studies technology and agriculture.
“What we are seeing is that these technologies are developed in a way that supports … a very particular type of agriculture,” he said. “They focus on the large-scale production of a single crop, and they are usually cash crops. It is not horticulture. ”
While they could be effective in reducing the environmental impact of factory farms, they risk further entrenching high-tech agriculture and large corporations at the expense of smaller, more diversified farms, he said. In a September report, the UN made clear that more diversified farms are essential to tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and global hunger.
“What is really at stake is our ability to produce food for the future. If we are trying to fix the problems caused by technology (with) more technology, we have no reason to believe that it will work, ”Knezevic added.
That is not the only problem. Agricultural companies are under increasing pressure to stop harmful industrial farming practices, such as the heavy use of pesticides. Instead, these companies are increasingly using high-tech robots, artificial intelligence and big data to reduce their emissions, use of pesticides and fertilizers, and measure the amount of carbon they can sequester in farmers’ fields, explained Kelly Bronson. , a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in technology and agriculture.
While this data may appear innocuous, agribusinesses could use it to shape the future of food globally for the benefit of major corporations, regardless of social, economic or environmental costs.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t think of Monsanto (now Bayer) as the new Facebook,” he said.
They recognized that emerging technologies can be tremendously beneficial to farmers as they help with everything from monitoring the weather to feeding cows. However, to be successful, these machines must be designed for a diversity of farmers, and the data they generate is largely protected against misuse.
Knezevic and Bronson’s concerns were echoed last year in a controversy after a 2020 report commissioned by the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture that encourages the province to rely on high-tech agriculture, or agritech, to sustainably meet its food needs. The findings were damned at the time by dozens of farm advocates and food scholars in the province who feared the approach would entrench industrial agriculture and corporate control over food, some of whom spoke at the recent province event.
It’s a tension the event tried to address, Popham said.
“I have talked to many farmers, small, medium and large, and I know that they all use forms of agritech,” he said. “With this conference, it was very, very important not to put barriers between organic, conventional, regenerative, large-scale, small-scale (farmers). It was an umbrella so everyone could dive in. “