On a farm just south of Winnipeg, a massive, long-term science experiment is playing out.
Rows of wheat, flax and peas are interspersed with alfalfa on the 10-hectare research farm, run in part by Martin Entz, a farmer, researcher and professor of cropping and natural systems agriculture at the University of Manitoba.
Entz and his team have spent the past 30 years exploring alternative ways of growing crops at the site in Glenlea, Man., comparing organic agriculture to conventional, chemically intensive practices.
It’s the longest-running organic farming study in Canada.
The use of a forage crop like alfalfa infuses the soil with nitrogen, so it ends up needing less than half of the usual amount of fertilizer to remain healthy. Alfalfa also has deep taproots, which can improve soil drainage and suppresses weed growth, again resulting in fewer chemicals needed to maximize yields.
The focus at Glenlea is getting the most out of crops while trying to minimize the chemical inputs that modern industrial agriculture has come to rely on, such as fossil fuel-derived synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.
Such practices will be key if we are to keep greenhouse gas emissions in check while feeding the world’s expanding population, which is expected to hit 10 billion by 2050 and increase the demand for food by 56 per cent.
'The status quo can't continue'
Some experts say our food systems are already at a breaking point and the need to feed many more people will create tremendous pressure on a structure that’s been pushed to — and perhaps even past — its environmental limits.
Agriculture is already facing its fair share of challenges, including an aging and shrinking workforce, a loss of arable land and unpredictability brought on by climate change.
And farming is not only being affected by climate change but is also a contributing cause of it.
Agricultural activity around the world is a major contributor to global warming, responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gases. It’s also the world’s leading driver of biodiversity loss, our largest source of water pollution and the biggest single user of freshwater.
“You put all those things together, and the status quo can’t continue,” said Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
”We cannot feed 10 billion people in a sustainable way using the current production systems. We can’t. We need to be much more thrifty with our land, and we need to boost our productivity.”
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Moving from chemical to biological agriculture
That’s where science and experimentation, such as what’s being done at the Glenlea farm, are increasingly playing a role.
“We’re working with nature’s biological ecological processes,” Entz said in an interview with Quirks & Quarks. “In nature, things are diverse. In nature, nutrients are recycled, carbon is recycled. And in nature, perennial plants are the dominant plant species as opposed to annual plants.”
Entz says agriculture — at least across much of the Western world — is in a period of transition away from a reliance on “command and control” systems that seek to dominate nature to maximize yields.
“We’ve gone from the mechanical to the chemical era, and now, we’re entering the biological era of agriculture where we’re, you know, looking at the limits of, especially, the chemicals,” he said. “And we’re thinking, how can we do this the way nature does it? How can we mimic nature to create a solution to a problem?”
Entz says such practices will also be particularly useful in the areas where future population growth is projected to be concentrated, namely, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, where small-scale farming still dominates.
The fields at Glenlea are far from the only place where experimentation is happening. Across Canada, farmers are adapting their ways of growing crops to change with the times.
They’re trying new kinds of crops and crop rotations, using animals to help maintain soil health, and maintaining biodiversity on land by bringing back trees and natural grasses to farms that used to be uniform fields.
Growing a little in a lot of places
Dave Kranenburg is one such farmer-scientist. He grows mushrooms, raises poultry, and does his own agricultural experiments on his farm in Orono, Ont., about 90 kilometres east of Toronto.
Kranenburg and many small-scale farmers like him practice what’s known as regenerative farming, a low-impact approach to land management that’s based on enhancing the natural ecosystem. In other words, working with the environment instead of taming it.
For Kranenburg, that means growing his mushrooms indoors in sawdust, away from deer, insects and other pests, and raising his chickens, turkeys and ducks primarily outdoors on pasture, where they feast on wild plants and insects.
“I’m a big believer … that small farms have the capacity and the potential to feed the entire global population,” he said. “It’s this idea that [we should be] growing in a lot of places, growing a little bit of food and doing so in a way that kind of works within the carrying capacity of their land.”
Regenerative farming often includes simple solutions small farmers have relied on for decades.
These are “basic soil science and agronomy practices,” explained Fraser, such as rotating crops to build up the soil and avoid nutrient depletion, planting winter cover crops to protect against erosion and carefully integrating livestock to recycle nutrients into the system.
With awareness building around climate change, some of these methods can be adopted relatively easily by large, industrial farms, too, particularly amid the global push for net-zero emissions by 2050
A zero or no-till approach to farmland – where the earth is left untouched, instead of broken up to prepare for planting — has increasingly been embraced in the last few decades, after it was shown that tilling dramatically degrades the organic matter in the soil and can release carbon stored in our fields.
Healthy soils are richer in nutrients, better retain water and oxygen and can ultimately better shield vulnerable plant roots from extreme weather.
“[These practices] really do turn fields from being a source of greenhouse gas emissions into what’s called a carbon sink,” he said, where the soil absorbs and stores more carbon than it releases.
“In other words, with careful management, farmers can become our front line in combating climate change, rather than being a big contributor to it.”
For Arzeena Hamir, last year really highlighted why we need to change the way we farm.
In the decade she’s been operating her 10-hectare organic fruit and vegetable farm on Vancouver Island, no single year has been the same as the one before it. But 2021 threw a particular curveball.
First came last summer’s dramatic heat dome, when the West Coast experienced multiple days of temperatures in the high 30s. The farm lost at least a third of its production.
“Our black currant crop, it literally cooked the berries on the plant. They turned pink, as if they’d been boiled, and then they fell,” Hamir recalled.
Then in December, Amara Farm saw more than a metre of snowfall in a single month. Wet, heavy snow that forced her and her husband to dig out their greenhouses every two days.
But since Day 1, the couple has tried to build a resilient farm, rich in biodiversity – they grow 47 varieties of crops. They also recently built a larger dugout to preserve water. And they’ve spent a lot of time building up the soil with organic matter to improve its vibrancy.
Healthy soils are richer in nutrients, better retain water and oxygen, and can ultimately better shield vulnerable plant roots from extreme weather.
Ultimately, Hamir said, she thinks that vibrancy is what saved many of the farm’s plants.
Going green – again
Stewart Wells, a third-generation farmer in southern Saskatchewan, transitioned away from conventional agriculture back in 1991. Today, he grows a wide range of grains — wheat, peas, lentils and oats — on his 1,400-hectare organic farm located in what’s known as the Palliser Triangle, one of the driest parts of Canada.
Farming has long been a risky business, he says, so it’s important to both build a resilient farm and do what he can to curb climate change.
Beyond going organic, Wells has made other changes over the years. Eighty-five per cent of the farm is powered by solar panels, and he converted an old half-tonne truck used on the farm into an electric vehicle. The use of newer technology, such as GPS-equipped tractors, optimizes field use, planting and harvesting, ultimately cutting down on fuel use.
“We’re just jamming all sorts of fossil fuel energy into one end and getting increased production out of the other end. But with that increased production comes a whole bunch of pollutants,” he said. “The natural environment cannot deal with the toxins and the pollutants that you’re producing.”
Advances in conventional agriculture of the last century were also driven by scientific experimentation motivated by worries about a food crisis.
The green revolution in the second half of the 20th century was ushered in by Norman Borlaug, a geneticist and plant pathologist who spent two decades breeding and developing a high-yield variety of disease-resistant wheat.
With shorter stalks and more kernels, the new wheat was wildly successful, and yields exploded, notably in Mexico, India and Pakistan. The work was soon applied to the staple crop of rice, too, and in 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in fighting global hunger.
But these new varieties were input-intensive, relying on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and heavy irrigation, and eventually mechanized cultivation. Today, some have warned that we can’t continue on this path if we want to sustainably feed future generations and have called for a more sustainable “evergreen revolution” instead.
Resilience over yield
There’s no question plant breeding was a major driver in increasing food production over the last 50 years, allowing us to feed five billion people, and the same will be true as we look to provide for twice that number, says Ian Stavness, an associate professor of computer science and researcher at the University of Saskatchewan.
Stavness studies plant phenotyping, which involves breaking down a plant’s characteristics in great detail. Understanding plants on a genomic level can ultimately help breeders make better selections, particularly if they’re looking to improve a particular trait, such as a crop that is resilient to drought, for example.
“It’s not just producing more food to feed 10 billion people; it’s producing better food that’s more nutritious and satisfies … preference from consumers. And also doing that, likely, on a smaller footprint of arable land,” he said.
“We definitely need these new technological advances to help us do that, and particularly, this kind of resilience to increasing variability in the environment.”
There is a shift happening right now, Stavness says, and growers are no longer solely focused on high-yield crops. The goal is instead to ensure better yield stability, or creating a crop that is more likely to thrive under a range of different environmental conditions.
“So that means farmers can be more confident that the seeds that they plant are going to produce high nutritional quality grain and large amounts of grain, regardless of the types of weather conditions or the changes that could occur season to season,” he said.
Improving crops at the genetic level
Today’s plant-breeding practices are also “light years” faster, said Fraser, as tools such as data science, controlled environments and gene editing provide breeders with information that was previously determined through a lot of trial and error.
Combining phenotyping with technology like CRISPR, for example — a powerful gene-editing system that allows scientists to modify the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms relatively easily — allows scientists to turn on and off certain genetic attributes.
CRISPR has been used to create a soybean oil that has a longer shelf life and produces less saturated fat and no trans fat. It’s also been used to slow the browning process in some mushrooms. And it’s been used to increase the number of kernels in corn.
“What would’ve taken years of careful field trials can be done in much shorter periods of time and for much shorter costs now with these new scientific tools,” said Fraser.
Beyond crop innovations, Fraser is also excited by advances in vertical farming, where vegetables — usually fast-growing leafy greens — are produced in a completely controlled environment, using low-cost LED lights and hydroponic systems that can recycle water.
Moving production indoors eliminates the need for pesticides, allows for multiple growing seasons per year, and helps hedge against climate change, meaning even a northern country like Canada could become self-sustaining for some fruits and vegetables, Fraser said.
While food production will never be fully moved indoors — grain crops, such as wheat, corn and soybean, need large areas of land — any new innovation just offers us another tool in our arsenal as we look to feed more people, he said.
”It’s sort of a weird combination of embracing the past and embracing the future at the same time where I think we find a pathway forward.”
Production of the Quirks & Quarks radio special: Amanda Buckiewicz.
Lead photo: A farmer is shown drying rice in Huaian, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, on Oct. 24, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)