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 011 - Climate change and agricultural solutions
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges for our times - and the impacts are especially challenging for the agricultural sector. In this episode, we talk about a science model that the Government of Canada is using to generate solutions, as well as issues related to climate change and agriculture. We hear from two generations of environmental scientists on the topic.
Dr. Javier Gracia-Garza: Farmers are innovators by nature, I will say embracing innovation and in working together with the scientific community to support them, that we will become more resilient over time. I think embracing practices that will be beneficial for sustainable production are critical.
Kirk Finken: Welcome to the First Sixteen. A podcast about fresh ideas and innovation in farming and food. I’m your co-host Kirk Finken.
Sara Boivin-Chabot: I’m your other co-host, Sara Boivin-Chabot.
Kirk: Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our times and for the agricultural sector. This will be a first episode in many where we will speak with experts, innovators and thought leaders on the topic.
Sara: Today, we will hear from one of Canada’s leading specialists on climate change and agriculture, Dr. Javier Gracia-Garza. He has been working on this issue for most of his career, both nationally and internationally.
Kirk: So, he sees the issue in all its complexity. And he understands fully the economic factor that producers, industry, governments are facing.
Sara: We will also hear from, Gordon Bell. He is a young soil scientist and a member of the Canadian Agricultural Youth Council. He is part of the next generation that will be most impacted by climate change.
Sara: Stick around to the end, too. We will give you some info on the new Agricultural Climate Solutions program.
Kirk: Plus, there are other funding programs available to our sector through different federal departments. We will mention those, too, at the end.
Sara: So, let’s start by hearing from Dr. Gracia-Garza.
Kirk: Welcome Dr. Gracia-Garza. For some of our listeners who are not directly working on farms, can you first give us a picture of the types of impacts that farmers are experiencing as a result of climate change?
Javier: Well, I think important impacts of climate change is when it comes to these extreme events, climatic events, or whether there is a high level of, I will say, unpredictability of how this part patterns are changing. So when I think in other times we would have perhaps seen a more or say to some extent, I mean, predictable. Weather patterns now are a lot more disruptive. So droughts or very wet spring fall that are interrupting either seeding or harvesting at the end of the year. That's something that actually is real. It's happening here.
Kirk: It’s real. But weather patterns are huge. It seems completely beyond our control. So, how can farmers be part of the solution to climate change?
Javier: To begin with I think farmers, ranchers are innovators. They actually are always working very close to nature, to how things are happening in their in their fields and in their growing conditions that they have. So they are constantly innovating to adjust and adapt to things.
So I will say farmers have and have always had a great role in helping, adapt and mitigate.
So, for instance, our farmers in the Prairie region were very early adopters of the conservation tillage, zero tillage. And that in itself actually helped a lot.
So to they actually are not only improving the health of the soil, but they are also sequestering some of the carbon that that I would say play an important role to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate change.
Kirk: I realize there are many beneficial management practices for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And it is complex. But is there any low hanging fruit? Beyond the no-till, are there any solutions that are easy for producers to adopt now?
Javier: Well, I mean, I would say what is easy is it's a very relative term, what is easy from what I stand as a scientist or in a research organization is quite different. And what it will be, I think, for the producers, for ranchers, for growers. So I would not necessarily say what is easy, but what I will actually say is that I think so there are there are a lot of practices like when I was mentioning before the zero tillage or conservation tillage where, um, what I think there are there are this beneficial management practices that are supporting whether it is carbon sequestration or practices that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also the quality of soils, the quality of water and how we are managing water in agriculture, biodiversity, pollinators, et cetera. So there are many of those beneficial management practices. And there is no single bullet, silver bullet that will actually solve everything.
Sara: No silver bullet for sure. Canadian regions and agriculture are diverse. So too are the diversity of solutions that need to be considered, I imagine.
Javier: So I think it is it is important for us to think about how in nature all of these different components, that is soil, water, biodiversity in these practices that release greenhouse gas emissions, they are all interconnected. And we need to work on these as a system. So I think what we need to do, what is the biggest impact is for us to actually be working and understanding these agriculture systems and then applying the kind of beneficial management practices that make sense for that production system in that local regional conditions.
What may work in one place, may not work in other places. So it's something that innovation research will help, I think, advance that. But I also would like to recognize that agriculture is an economic sector. It is something where the bottom line has to be something that is economically feasible.
So what is what has a big impact has to be something as well that it works from the economic point of view. That said, the economy and protecting, I think the assets that are what a farm has, the soil, the water, et cetera, is something that is not in opposite ends. So the economy and the environment are not I don't see it as a as two different things or working in two different ways. So opposite ways. So I would say that we need to continue, I think, producing food. The demographics in the world certainly are telling us that there's a need for producing that food.
Sara: How are we as a government department helping producers to be stewards of the land?
Javier: I will say in two ways, one is we have a suite of programs that are supporting innovation and that are supporting our agriculture, our farmers and ranchers to produce agriculture. I think in a in a more sustainable way, through innovation, through supporting the adoption of many of these beneficial management practices.
Also we have the most extensive network of research centers across the country. We are a national organization that is supporting through our scientists and our science capacity and expertise to actually support not only the development of the fundamental understanding of the environment, the ecosystems where agriculture is produced, but also in the development of beneficial management practices.
Sara: Just for our listeners, in one of our last episodes we talked about living labs. It’s a comprehensive and collaborative approach to science that is done on farms.
The Living Labs model developed in Canada by our department has been endorsed by the G20 as a model of innovation.
And this new program that we have launched – The Agricultural Climate Solutions program – also seeks to use the Living Labs model to find solutions.
Dr. Gracia-Garza, can you explain a little about Living Labs method and why you think it will help to address the issues of climate change more effectively?
Javier: So this methodology of living laboratories, what it does is that we actually work directly in having the producers, the agriculture, the growers, the ranchers and the other drivers seat. They are the ones who are actually going to be driving this innovation. This will result hopefully in an accelerated adoption. the solutions for the problems that are actually happening in that in that environment in in in the in their farms.
So we will be working in collaboration and strong sort of joint call, developing and call designing solutions between farmers, scientists and all the stakeholders that actually are relevant within each of the different local areas where these living laboratories are going to be taking place.
And that we also believe that is at the core of why I think it will be supporting a quick adoption, accelerated adoption of BMPs. Is this beneficial management practices? Is the fact that we are going to be working in this as part of this program on agricultural climate solutions on the farms directly in the in the producing farms, in the lands of the of the growers, of the farmers, not necessarily in our research centers or at experimental farms. So the fact that we are actually trying solutions, doing adjustments to beneficial management practices right in the produce, in the farmer's lands, is also a really critical component here, because that will prove that these actual BMPs are working well in rural environments.
And the third point that actually the living laboratories are bringing in is what I was mentioning in a previous question. We are taking a very systematic approach and what I mean by that, although these Agricultural Climate Solutions program is focusing as the most important component for mitigation on the reduction of the greenhouse gases by sequestering carbon, we are also looking at improving the health of the soil, the improving water quality and also biodiversity habitat.
And in general, I think also for the improvement of biodiversity, because as I mentioned before in nature, all of these things are interconnected. So in the living laboratories, we are actually taking that systematic approach to bring together all of these elements, looking at the practices that we are developing or adjusting to make it applicable in different parts of the country that actually are working to support a sustainable agriculture production in the long term.
Kirk: So, we do have a lot of movement on this issue. Already significant interest has been shown in the Agricultural Climate Solutions program. Applications are coming in from a variety of organizations who are working in collaboration with farmers and ranchers.
The effects of climate change are being felt now, and expose the next generation to even greater challenges.
Sara: It’s why we wanted to bring in a young scientist to hear his perspective. Youth need to be a voice at this table.
We talked to Gordon Bell, soil scientist at University of Guelph, who is also a member of the Canadian Agricultural Youth Council.
Kirk: Hi, Gordon. Javier has talked a lot about soil and soil health being an important factor in the solutions for climate change. What drove you to study soils?
Gordon: I think what motivated me to go into research was learning about how reliant we are on soil, so if you look at an apple is like the planet. The skin of that apple is the thickness of that soil. And yet all terrestrial life relies on that soil.
You know, people might look at and they just see a field of grass and yet you take a cubic centimeter of soil and there are millions of different millions of bacteria and fungi and things in that soil. Or you take a large volume of soil and you say, if I took all the fungal hyphae in this cubic meter of soil and I stretched it out and end, it would be kilometers long. And I just I know they're just random facts, but I've always just found them just so interesting to think that this is all just happening right below our feet.
Kirk: As a young scientist, what are your greatest concerns about climate change?
Gordon: It's a big problem, it's a global problem. We all share the oceans. We all share the atmospheres and human activities like since the Industrial Revolution have really been causing all of these problems now in the past couple of decades as we're starting to get a handle on the science and the impacts and potentially some of the solutions, we're realizing that we really need to act. Our greatest tool is time. So the sooner we act, the better we can do. We can leverage that time. So I think one of my concerns is that we're not going to act soon enough.
Sara: How do you see your research playing a role in the fight against climate change?
Gordon: I really like thinking about these things in terms of insurance and soil health as in terms of insurance. So if you have really healthy soil that's thriving, it's diverse microflora and fauna and lots of organic matter, then this soil is going to be really resilient to both like weather and to disease. So I think that more recently, the kind of conventional Ag complex has realized that there are some benefits from adopting some of these, which some of these best management practices like reducing tillage or cover cropping or diversifying your crop rotation. And I think they're going to start to incorporate those into some of their production. So I think that's probably one thing that's going happen that's already happening. There are some companies I know General Mills has a pretty large regenerative Ag kind of division. So, um, yeah. And that's probably more in the next five years.
Gordon: In 10 years, I think that data is going to become very, very important in agriculture, whether it's from like smart tractors or insitu soil sensors or satellite information. Both of these together, I think can really help just have some data driven science and, you know, identify areas of your field that are underperforming and that maybe it's worthwhile to take it of production or identify areas in the field that are always dry and so maybe they need more irrigation or something. So, yeah, I think that's probably more and more that kind of data input from. Sensors and satellites is going to be really big.
Sara: What gives you the most hope?
Gordon: I guess what gives me the most hope is that. Specifically, agriculture can be part of the solution when it comes to combating climate change. There's a number of research that that suggest that could be a large portion, and especially in the short term, like going up to like 2050 and. A lot of these solutions aren't complicated and they're not overly technical. You know, people talk about these natural climate solutions, like these things I've already been talking about that are really simple. They're cover cropping and diversifying our crop rotation. And if you have animals incorporating animals into your into your fields and using as much manure and other organic as amendments as possible like these can help combat climate change. One thing that I find interesting is that one of the best things that you could do is, you know, preserve wetlands and take marginal land out of production and restore it to some sort of more native ecosystem.
I've found it in some ways hopeful that we've seen this huge mobilization to fight covid. There have been trillions and trillions of dollars that have been spent over the past year to fight a an immediate danger of of this global pandemic.
And seeing that, yes, we can mobilize and do that. And we developed vaccines in record time. Like I, I think that shows that there is the ability to come together and to combat this. But I think we just need everybody to agree that we need to combat this. This is something that we need to be worried about so we can get on to working on solutions. And I think if there's one final thing I'd say is I strongly believe that good environmental policies are good economic policies because as humans, we might think we're separate from the environment, but we're really not. We rely on the environment for our food, for our water, for our air and things that protect our air, that protect our water, that protect our soils, those help improve our quality of life.
Sara: After hearing Javier and Gordon, I can’t help but think that being a producer in this modern age is a complex business. There is a lot of science and economics to consider in every decision. There are market factors, there are consumer trends and opinions, there are changing weather patterns. And then to add to their vocation and purpose that farms can be part of the solution to climate change?
Kirk: The good news is, as we have heard, that there are tools—in the form of farming practices based on science, programs and new technologies—that can buffer farmers from climate damage and help make their operations more resilient and sustainable for the long term.
Sara: I would like to go back to Dr. Gracia-Garza because at the end of our interview he had a very clear message that he wanted to send to Canadian farmers.
Kirk: You know what, for you personally, you've been working on this a long time, you know, you're seeing it as a national and an international level. You really understood a lot of the issues and the obstacles. What is the message that you would really like to make sure that it's super clear to Canadian farmers about climate change
Javier: Climate change is happening. We are seeing the impacts, we are taking a very, I would say, close look at trying to see, I think based on historical information we have, how this is changing across the country. We want to have a sense of how quickly these changes are happening, how many of those extreme events we were talking about, I was talking about earlier, so that we have a better, I will say, appreciation of how these climate change is impacting the agriculture sector. So that is one very important thing. It is real and there is some predictability. And we are trying to get a bit the best sense possible to see how we can adapt to it. And also really important as part of the work that we are focusing on, mitigating how agriculture can bring solutions to the climate change challenge.
Javier: I will say, and this is in my experience, working with farmers, speaking directly with some of them that have said, you know, if if we don't implement a better practice to manage soil erosion within 30 years, I may not have soil to produce agriculture on. Soil is an asset. It is a legacy as well for the future generations within their own families. So this beneficial management practices, this doing things in a different way, perhaps, of what we have been doing will help to rebuild a healthier agriculture ecosystems. That's, I would say, a really important piece there that ultimately and again, I don't discard or I'm not I'm conscious that the importance of the economical component of the agriculture, but depleting our resources for agriculture is something that in the long term will be certainly not profitable.
Javier: So. And one also an important I think consideration is that when we think about how I would say signals from markets, signals from consumers, I think the environment, the environmental footprint of agriculture is something that is an important component as well to take into consideration as we move forward in in maintaining, I think, or adopting practices that will support a sustainable agriculture development.
Kirk: What he just said about soil as a legacy drives it home. It’s why the new programs are important
As mentioned at the top of the episode, there is a new 10-year program managed by our department called the Agricultural Climate Solutions.
It was designed to support initiatives that aim to harness the natural power of the soil to store carbon. It will help develop effective, practical and economic solutions to help combat climate change.
Sara: And it will use the same collaborative, on-farm approach used by the Living Laboratories Initiative.
Kirk: This collaboration will lead to the co-development and sharing of sustainable farming practices - practices that have the potential to: Trap and store carbon on farms, reduce greenhouse gases, improve water and soil quality and protect the diversity of soil organisms, plants and animals on farms.
Sara: This program is for agricultural industry associations, not-for-profit organizations (including cooperatives) and Indigenous groups. Importantly, all of the initiatives need to be done in collaboration with producers.
Kirk: The deadline for grant funding applications is June 15, 2021. You can find out
more at: Agr.gc.ca/agriculturalclimatesolutions.
I want you to also know that there are a other federal funding sources that are aimed at addressing climate change. It’s a multi-pronged approach. The best place to find those sources of funding is on the webpages of Environment and Climate Change Canada under climate change funding programs.
Sara: And in the meantime, you know what to do?
Kirk: Try something new.
Sara: Try something new.
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