Agroecology is a Big Word, Requiring Broad Research

Organic Agriculture Center of Canada

As escalating global populations continue to drive up the demand for food, researchers and farmers alike are left wondering if available Canadian farmland can sustainably meet future needs.  Working hard to ensure Canada’s long term food security, Stewart Brandt and a group of researchers from Agriculture and Agrifood Canada are hoping that ongoing agroecological research will hold the key to Canada’s agricultural success.

Initial design discussion and experiment results, gathered by scientists of mixed disciplines over thousands of hours, are published in the paper, “Design, rational and methodological considerations for a long term alternative cropping experiment in the Canadian plain region” in the European Journal of Agronomy.  In Brandt’s words, they are, agroecologically speaking, “a real mixed bag”.

Agroecology is broadly defined as the application of ecological principles to agricultural study.  So, whereas typical scientific research may focus on one element of agricultural production, like crop yield, as a measurement of a cropping system’s success, Stewart and his team will also assess the system’s resource and environmental impacts.

“This study is novel in Canada”, stated Brandt during a recent telephone interview, adding that because of the complexities involved in ecological study it is also “a huge challenge”.

Established in 1994, in Scott, Saskatchewan, the field experiment compares the grain yields, weed and disease densities and soil arthropod populations (good indicators of soil health) of nine cropping systems. Each system is a combination of one of three different management systems; organic, reduced input conventional and high input conventional, and one of three different rotational schemes; a low diversity, wheat-fallow intensive rotation, a diversified annual grain rotational system and a diversified annual perennial system that includes a mix of grains and forage.  Arthropod populations are also compared to several undisturbed grassland sites.

Brandt notes that, in terms of environmental impact and long-term sustainability, no one agricultural system is dramatically better than another.  He adds that part of the problem is system input substitution with each input exhibiting its own pros and cons.

For example, whereas a high input conventional operator will typically utilize herbicides to control weeds, an organic farmer will, instead, use tillage operations.  Herbicides have been documented to drift, pollute waterways and disrupt soil microbial life.  On the flip side, intensive tillage operations can destroy soil structure, also damage soil organisms and contribute to soil erosion.

Brandt stresses that, regardless of the agricultural management method, all farmers, including those dedicated to organic principles “need to recognize that there are shortcomings [in every system] and that we all need to invest in developing solution to these problems.”

Brandt believes that working with the environment is a key part of the solution.  He emphasizes that the role of soil organisms in plant and soil health and productivity is largely underestimated and unknown.  Since the inception of his research, for example, he and his team have discovered numerous soil species that he didn’t even know existed in Saskatchewan soils.  Determining their function within the complex relationships of the agroecosystem and the management methods that best support their populations will be his next challenge.

The farmers themselves are another vital part of a sustainable solution.  As a result, Brandt concedes that they are under a lot of pressure.

“The agricultural industry is being asked to supply more than just food”, Brandt stated.  Operators must also assume the role of environmental stewards, protecting Canada’s viable agricultural land for future generations.  It’s a tall order, to be sure, but Brandt is optimistic.

“I’ve never met a farmer yet who was afraid to eat the food he produces” said Brandt adding that the farmers who have made his acquaintance, organic and conventional, all strive to produce food that is healthy and nutritious.  As healthy food is a direct product of healthy land it seems logical that all farmers will be on board for new solutions to long term sustainability.

“Of course”, stated Brandt.  “It’s their living”.

As such, Brandt and his team will continue to work tirelessly to “develop the science that will provide farmers with the appropriate tools to meet these challenges”, specifically those that deal with an increasing demand for food, a shrinking agricultural land base and an agroecosystem whose potential is largely undiscovered.

Brandt’s full set of research results, as yet unpublished, will appear shortly in a second paper in the European Journal of Agronomy.

This article was written by Tanya Brouwers on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners
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Posted April 2011