Farmers Are The Original Environmentalists. So What Are Governments Trying To Fix?

Agriculture. The ten-thousand-year-old industry responsible for feeding 7.8 billion people alive on this planet today. The business that supplies hundreds of billions of gallons of ethanol and diesel fuel, that feeds billions of livestock. The way of life that sustains hundreds of millions of families around the world. The quintessential sustainable business that, for many farms, lasts for generations.

I farm in southern Saskatchewan, Canada, with several family members, including my parents, siblings, and my wife and kids. We employ non-family employees, too, who are like family to us. We are a third-generation farm growing a variety of crops over thousands of acres of beautiful soil, hoping for a fourth generation to take over, someday.

And there are thousands upon thousands more just like ours.

You wouldn’t know that farmers are caretakers of the soil and environment if you spend much time listening to the governments of the world these days. Examples span the globe, from Europe to Sri Lanka, and all of them seem to be targeting “improving”, or even worse, “transforming” agriculture. Ambitious political leaders seem all too keen to change agriculture to suit their needs.

In Europe, this transformation became the Farm to Fork strategy, released in 2020. It was all about “moving towards a more healthy and sustainable EU food system.” The goals of this “great transition” included:

  • Reduce pesticide use by 50% by 2030
  • Reduce fertilizer use by at least 20% by 2030
  • Increase land devoted to organic farming to 25% of total European farmland by 2030

There are a few other goals in there, but these are the major ones. These goals are extremely ambitious. And catastrophic to any who care about food security. European production will fall under these strenuous rules and food will cost more. Moreover, what’s the incentive for farmers to stay at it? Profitability will decline, with a tremendous increase in workload for farmers to keep on top of all this regulation.

You’ve likely heard of the protests in the Netherlands. Indeed, if you’re a farmer from there, the Farm to Fork strategy might sound pretty mild these days.

The Netherlands government claim they wish to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer by 50% by 2030, but this varies depending on the region. Some areas will be forced to reduce fertilizer use by as much as 95%! Some farms will be bought out, apparently, as not all farms will be allowed to continue on. Astonishingly, the government of the Netherlands had this to say just recently:

“The honest message … is that not all farmers will be able to continue their business.” (read more here)

 If you’re a farmer in Sri Lanka, you were outlawed from buying fertilizer or crop protection products and ordered to become an organic farmer in one fell swoop in 2021. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaigned on this very promise in 2019, and swiftly followed through after winning the election. The result has been truly catastrophic, with a collapsing currency, ballooning food imports, rapidly growing poverty, and violent protests.

In any of these countries, you spend decades of your life building up a strong, profitable farm with the hope of transitioning it to your children someday. To give them the same opportunities your parents gave you. To leave them an opportunity to carry on the family farm. Then, one day, just like that, you were told you were doing it wrong. The government knows better. All your experience added up to nothing. The government will decide how much fertilizer you get to use. How you’re going to control your weeds. How you’re going to look after your livestock. Or, maybe, the government just decided it’s best if you don’t farm at all anymore.

No, this isn’t science fiction, or Orwell’s 1984. This is happening, today, in developed and developing economies alike. While these new laws and regulations seem abrupt and shocking, the reality is that this has been coming for years, as campaigns from environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have slowly whittled away at agriculture’s reputation. First, they went after genetic engineering, glyphosate, and so-called “factory farming”. Then came the attacks on livestock producers, claiming animal welfare concerns and too much land being used to grow them and their feed. All these attacks had a cumulative effect, labeling agriculture as a giant, industrial complex, swallowing up land and piling on pesticides and fertilizers. Lately, we started seeing a shift toward reducing agriculture’s impact on climate change, and all the subsequent assaults on animal agriculture and fertilizer use.

The attacks agriculture has faced have been organized, well-funded, and strategic, by players who seem to have goals in mind for an “optimized” food system. We farmers have not been able to respond in a meaningful, impactful manner. In short, we are losing the war.

Is agriculture perfect? Of course not. There’s so much progress to be made yet. But the safest hands towards these better farming practices are, and always have been, farmer’s hands. When you farm the same piece of land for years, decades, even centuries, it is in your best interest to treat that soil like gold. Looking after the environment, the soil, and your farm’s finances is absolutely critical if you are to survive for the long-term.

For example, in the late 1980’s, farmers realized that watching their topsoil blow away in the wind wasn’t just depressing, it was bankrupting them. They had to find a better way. So, they innovated. They adapted. A decade of severe drought, high interest rates, and weak commodity prices resulted in an enormous switch away from tillage (ripping up the soil with steel) and summerfallow (giving the land a “rest” for a year to conserve moisture), towards minimum tillage, continuous cropping (growing a crop every year), and longer crop rotations. This switch resulted in massive gains in productivity, greatly reduced soil erosion, and produced better farm incomes.

Today, we’re using more technology than ever before. We’re soil testing, applying different rates of fertilizers and chemicals to different areas of our fields, we’re monitoring our crops at a level of sophistication my grandpa couldn’t have dreamed of. It’s simply stunning.

Technology has transformed agriculture, just as genetic modification did in the 1990’s, no-till did in the 1980’s, or 2,4-D herbicide did in the 1970’s. We don’t need government, food corporations, or non-governmental organizations to tell us how to transform ourselves again. We already have the incentives to do so. Applying inputs we don’t need wastes time and money for us. If we do that too often, our farms will not survive to the next generation.

Here in Canada, our government isn’t doing anything nearly as extreme as what’s happening in the Netherlands or Sri Lanka. What they’re proposing is a 30% reduction in emissions from fertilizer by 2030.  It’s possible that we can meet this requirement in the time we’ve been given, and, at least for now, the government has been adamant that this is a voluntary reduction, and that they have no plans to restrict the use of nitrogen fertilizer. And reducing emissions is, of course, a smart goal – lost nitrogen emissions means lost fertilizer. However, farmers have trust issues with this government holding to their word, and are rightly concerned as to whether they actually will. Recent activity from the federal environment minister, testing farmers’ dugout water without permission, has not helped to allay that fear.

What farmers fear is this voluntary reduction in emissions turning into a mandatory reduction in fertilizer, like other regions around the world are seeing. What will the consequences be if we don’t comply?

If this happens, farmers will have no choice but to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use. And that will result in a reduction in yield, precisely at a time when the world needs exportable grains from reliable, environmentally conscious exporters, like Canadian farmers.

We will be less profitable and less competitive.

And you will pay more for your food.

What’s happening in many countries around the world is disturbing. It’s difficult to watch our farming neighbours be vilified by their own governments. It’s frightening to imagine all of that happening here at home. It’s equally troubling to think about the impact all this will have on world hunger. As usual, it’s the world’s poor who face the consequences from flawed food policy decisions.

Several years ago, I remember a speech by Robert Saik about how agriculture can feed 10 billion people by 2050, but will we be allowed to? With the way policy decisions are being made around the world, the answer to his question is no. This is a travesty. We have all the technology and skills we need to feed a growing population, provide inputs for biofuels, and feed all the livestock on the planet, with a minimal impact on the environment. We just need governments to step out of the way. Unfortunately, they seem keen on stepping further and further in the way.

Let farmers do what they do best: grow safe, nutritious, healthy, affordable food – on their terms, not the government’s.

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