The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.
Episode 009 - Living Laboratories Quebec
Hear about this Living Laboratories initiative and its revolutionary new approach to innovation. It brings together farmers, scientists, and other collaborators to address agri-environmental issues in a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Martin Carron: Sometimes we get the impression that researchers are working alone on their side. And then producers are working alone on their side. But with the living lab formula that we are putting in place, there is a linkage. Beyond the research and knowledge that we are going for, there are great gains in just that principle.
Sara: Welcome to the First Sixteen. I am Sara Boivin-Chabot.
Kirk: And I'm Kirk Finken.
Sara: You know how we always end our episodes? And I tell you to try something new?
Kirk: Yeah. I think I know where you're going with this.
Sara: Today we start with that idea of trying something new – really new. We're speaking with two people named Martin who embody that spirit. They are two of the leading participants in a very new approach to agricultural science, called Living Labs.
Kirk: One Martin – Martin Chantigny -- is a senior researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The other Martin – Martin Caron – is a dairy and grain farmer near Lac St. Pierre, Quebec. He is also the VP of the Union de producteurs agricoles – UPA, as it's known in Quebec.
Sara: They're working on some of the most pressing issues of our time related to sustainable agriculture. And they are working on it in a transdisciplinary approach that brings together producers and scientists, plus a whole community of stakeholders and experts.
Kirk: Their project is happening in and around Lac St. Pierre, which is really where the St. Lawrence River widens into a lake. It's right between Montreal and Quebec.
Sara: It's a region that is rich in agriculture. And it is a very rich ecosystem that is part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
Kirk: So, the solutions they seek for sustainable agriculture are really solutions for sustainability of the region's ecology. It's a complex approach to science – with a lot of potential for real change.
Sara: To get us started I first spoke with Martin Chantigny, our scientist, to get the definition of Living Labs. How do you define "Living Labs?"
Martin Chantigny: A living lab is an approach that allows for the development within the communities and by the communities of solutions to the problems they're facing. It's done in general by a more intuitive experimentation that takes into account the social realities of those communities. But what Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada does is that it takes that principle and adds a direct involvement of the scientists in the experimental process to accelerate the development and adoption of the solutions by the communities.
Sara: Your answer is rather theoretical. What does it mean in concrete terms? A living laboratory in agriculture? What does it look like?
Martin Chantigny: More specifically, a living lab is a place where you will find, you know, scientists and end-users of the research – so as producers and other stakeholders in the community – that gather together and discuss about, you know, the way to do research and develop solutions that are really adapted to the community, and that probably better answers complex problems such as climate change, water pollution and so on.
Kirk: Okay. But what exactly is the focus of the Living Labs Quebec project?
Sara: They are looking at the base elements of a sustainable agriculture – soil and water quality. And they are looking at it through a lens of climate change.
Kirk: Now, I'm no scientist, but that sounds like it can be quite vast. Where or how did they start?
Sara: It's not at all the normal starting place for traditional science. They started by building the relationships.
Kirk: Hmm, really?
Sara: Living Labs is all about co-development of solutions. And for that you need to build the relationships between the various stakeholders – producers, scientists, community, non-agricultural businesses, etc.
Kirk: Okay, I get that, but, in building the relationships, are they not also looking at actual scientific issues?
Sara: Yes, they are. There is some low hanging fruit, if you will. And there is a much more complex issue. They started with the best practices for ground cover crops and widening riparian zones. Those are easy things to help the soil and water quality. And the more complex issue is to look at the presence of heavy metals and pathogens in the ecosystem.
Kirk: Okay, it also strikes me that the more complex issue can also be kind of related to the low hanging fruit, too. No?
Sara: Totally. And that, I think is why co-development of solutions is important.
Kirk: So did Martin, the scientist, also explain this concept of co-development? It's a term I keep on hearing about when we're talking about Living Labs.
Sara: It's really a base principle of Living Labs. And it is just as it sounds. Solutions are developed together, never in isolation, never in silos. It's trans-disciplinary. It means a holistic solution that cuts across disciplines. And it means that the end-user, here the producer, is implicated in the process.
Kirk: Which brings us back to the other Martin. I really wanted to know how the agricultural producers see Living Labs and this approach.
Martin Carron: Hello, my name is Martin Caron, I am first vice-president of the provincial UPA and above all, I am a dairy and cereal producer in Louiseville in the Mauricie region, near Lake Saint-Pierre.
Kirk: Your region is very diverse in terms of agricultural production. And I understand that that diversity is also represented at the table in this initiative, right?
Martin Carron: We have producers, dairy producers, market gardeners and field crop producers who are also there. And I would say that we must also add the forestry producers, the agroforestry producers who are there because in all of these zones, well, there are wetlands and water environments as well.
Sara: And are there other stakeholders involved?
Martin Carron: There are other partners; there are organizations at the environmental protection level, such as the Wildlife Foundation among others. And there are other organizations that support us, who bring their expertise.
There are also Indigenous communities that are involved in the project. That's very interesting because they helped us better understand the medicinal plants growing in our region. That was unexpected. We realized there was something even greater than innovation going on.
There are a lot of partners like that, whether it's at the industry level or at the watershed management level, and that's the living laboratory, co-created and managed to some extent by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. We mobilize the players to come to these meetings. It allows us to have all this knowledge in the same place, for the benefit of the ecosystem and for the benefit of all our communities.
Sara: Some of those organizations look like they're not the traditional partners for producers.
Martin Carron: There are a few organizations that, I would say, are usually involved in projects we do. They are usually consulted. But to have all of them at the same table, it's really something unique.
And the project, when we set up, will allow that. And I'm delighted, of course, because I think it was important to know all this expertise, everyone together.
Sara: You seem to be really enthusiastic, what do you like about Living Labs? What do you want to work on?
It can happen that we do things and say we made a mistake, but to make a mistake you have to be able to try it too. I think at the same time it's those aspects really makes me happy.
At a meeting we had, the producers told us, we want to be part of the solution, but we also want to be recognized that we have expertise because we live in the territory. That's one of the key elements. The people, the producers who are there, they are the ones who live in the territory. Sometimes we can work on projects where the partners don't live in the territory. They do a project and then they leave. And when you want to address this whole ecosystem, there is nothing better than working with the people who live here and who will take a long term perspective for the whole territory.
Kirk: Do you see this, Living Laboratories, as a new research model for the future of agriculture?
Martin Carron: For me, I think it is, absolutely. There are five or six stakeholders in these issues. It's interesting to see. I think that's what this will lead to, that we're really going to change the way we do research and ensure that we respond to needs, because there's an evolution, there's an evolution over time. And I'm not saying that the research that was done before wasn't correct. But I think we've reached that point. If we have research and we want to have a transition, that it be adopted and adapted with our people, we need to have that communication link.
We can look for things and say, "Ah look, that's how we should do it." But if it doesn't go down to the root of the issue, we won't have gained anything overall. And that's really the link that is made between the researchers and we have technical advisors who are also with us and with the producers to ensure that the development of this research has a transmission belt, that it is applied directly in the field. And to have the feedback in the field to say, "Well look? Do that, but here are the other constraints we have." This circular exchange at the communication level has to be there.
Kirk: Can we go back to Martin the scientist? When you spoke with him, did you get an idea of how this new approach changed his way to think?
Sara: Oh yeah. And I found it interesting because he is a senior scientist with decades of experience. I didn't know what to expect. And what does it change in your work as a researcher?
Martin Chantigny: Well, the main change, I think, is about, you know, more closely listening to the advice of these non-scientific experts to be really open with their point of view, and so be able to integrate their point of view, their ideas into the development of research, research projects that will hopefully end up with, you know, solutions that are really well adapted to their reality.
Sara: But those research projects, developed in close collaboration with people in Lac Saint-Pierre, for example, will they be applicable to other communities afterwards?
Martin Chantigny: Hopefully, yes, at least in part. What I think is that probably the solution or the practices that will be developed in the area where the Living Lab is at the moment, will probably be transferable with some adaptation, depending on, you know, the climate reality of other regions and other maybe social aspects that might be different from one region to the other.
Sara: What made you decide to embark on this adventure and take the lead in the Living Labs?
Martin Chantigny: Well, probably that's because I've been managing several projects, pluri-disciplinary projects, so very integrative approaches, and I was particularly interested even more so with the transdisciplinary, which, you know, gets beyond the frontiers of the scientific realms, so by gathering together experts that are scientists and non-scientific experts to develop research projects and to develop solutions that are really well-adapted to complex problems such as climate change and water pollution.
Sara: Any surprises along the way?
Martin Chantigny: Well, so far I'd say that I didn't have any big surprise since the beginning of the project, however, I realized how complex it is to, you know, integrate the view of several different stakeholders and end-users in the research process, so I kind of have to step back a little bit and decide on which key stakeholders to get involved in beginning the process to be able to define, you know, priorities and good research ideas and so on. And so, by definition a Living Lab is like a living organism, it's, you know, it's going to grow and evolve over time, so the idea is that once the Living Lab has really started, we just integrate more and more stakeholders to adapt, you know, different views of the same reality and so on.
Sara: We're really talking about long term.
Martin Chantigny: That's right, that's right, and that's something that I've mentioned to those who are developing the initiative, the Living Lab initiative, that we can't, you know, start a Living Lab and think about having really good results within two or three years' horizon. So for this coming two to three years, we really aim at developing the structure, the infrastructure of the Living Lab to make sure that we include stakeholders, that we have good ways of interacting and developing research projects. And maybe we'll have some, you know, interesting result to talk about in two or three years from now. But really, we have to think really on the long, longer term, if we want to address very complex problems such as climate change and end up with good solutions that are really adapted for the communities where it's developed, we really have to think, you know, about several years of research before, you know, getting really interesting things to say.
Sara: It does sound like this is something that will take several years to come up with the right solutions.
Martin Chantigny: You really need to have a lot of belief and trust in the process, and it's going to be a lot of work, that's for sure. And I think that if you really hope that what you're doing in research is going to be useful for the public in general, for the end-users and so on, I think you probably find a motivation to, you know, to put very much time into the process. That's with the hope of having our results, you know, the research outcome more useful or more readily adopted by the end-users, but also just for the sake of the process. It's a very interesting process, you know, interacting with the public in general, with the end-user more closely, with all these people, and learn about their reality, all the social aspects, the, you know, how they live the different problems such as climate change. It's very interesting to learn about it.
Sara: I really liked what Martin, the producer, had to say at the end.
Martin Carron: Maybe I didn't say it enough earlier, but agricultural producers take pride in meeting challenges. That's something I've felt from the beginning, producers have pride and pride in the project. We need to be able to communicate that our people are in action. We want to use that pride as well in the work we will be doing with AAFC. There is a pride, a pride in showing the knowledge that producers have, and a pride in working on innovation. Our young people are there with our farm businesses. That's what they're looking for too -- to be in innovation-action mode, to have innovative research.
Kirk: I love it! That sort of thinking is at the heart of a healthy and dynamic sector.
Sara: And so that is just the Quebec Living Labs. There are Living Labs in other regions across – PEI, Ontario, Manitoba – that have started up.
Kirk: We'll be doing future episodes on those Living Labs over the course of the year. And until our next episode.
Sara: You know what to do?
Like our two Martins are doing…try something new.
Sara: And send us a message, subscribe, and if you feel like it, give us a review on iTunes or Spotify. We enjoy your feedback and suggestions for new episodes.
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