Agriculture as the great innovator: A discussion

- May 9, 2022

(Nick Pearce photo)
(Nick Pearce photo)

In mid-January, Dalhousie University President Deep Saini, Dean of Agriculture David Gray, and Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture Executive Director Carolyn van den Heuvel met in a boardroom at the Faculty of Agriculture to discuss feeding the world, environmental stewardship, and food security. The panel was moderated by journalist Philip Moscovitch.

This is an edited version of the discussion.

Philip Moscovitch (PM): Why don’t we start with the biggest challenges we're facing globally over the next 30 years, and then we'll move from that into talking more specifically about food.

Deep Saini (DS): The pandemic is a transitory challenge. It’s going to pass. So let’s look at the more sustained challenges. Climate change is going to be the issue of the next 30 years, and the whole issue boils down to moving away from fossil fuels. Then there is population. I grew up in a country that at one point was standing on the brink of starvation. And then in the 1980s or so, we became more and more focused on people as consumers, rather than people as mouths to feed. But the reality is those mouths still have to be fed. Eating habits have moved progressively up the food chain, and that means greater burdens on the land, and greater inputs of energy, and that has an impact of climate change.

The third major challenge is social cohesion and polarization. Disparities are increasing and the division between haves and have-nots is increasing. Those disparities are going to be a huge issue.

David Gray (DG): I completely agree. We are at this moment where we have to take action now in order to reduce the warming of the planet. We’ve got 30 years to figure out how to feed a global population of 10 billion. And the third issue from my perspective is water. Fresh water is finite and a key resource. Agriculture is the largest user of land on the planet by far, but we are also the largest user of water. So we will be looking at using technology to make our farming more efficient and effective.

Carolyn van den Heuvel (CvdH): Reflecting on this pandemic, we’re recognizing that when we make decisions, they affect the entire world — not just Canada, and not just Nova Scotia. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but it all comes down to sustainability, and to me sustainability is people, planet, and profit. Those are the elements we need to keep on our radar for the next few years. What I do on my little farm here in Nova Scotia, you know, there’s a ripple effect.

DG: Whatever we do, we have to take into account the effect it’s having on the planet. We’ve been doing things that aren’t sustainable for too long.

DS: Let’s put some numbers on this. Agriculture uses directly about 20% of the world’s energy, and about 30% if you include processing. That’s huge. It also produces 25-30% of greenhouse gases. And 67-70% of fresh water is used in agriculture. People say I’ll take shorter showers and that will solve the problem. No, that’s not going to solve it!

CvdH: We are significant users of water but also the reality is that we are producing food. It’s such an essential industry, at the base of our entire being. And sometimes the answers are more complex than we think they are. It’s not just chopping something to reduce a number.

DG: Completely agree.

PM: Can we talk about food security, as both a local and a global issue?

CvdH: Over the last year, people have become more aware of food security challenges. We need to be strategic about identifying some of the research and technology to ensure that we can keep food affordable and available in Nova Scotia, while recognizing that farmers are also running family businesses. We need our farmers to be profitable enough to be able to survive. For the last five decades we’ve been evolving our practices, but we need to evolve them at a faster pace.

DG: People don’t realize agriculture is one of the very earliest adopters of technologies.

CvdH: Right.

DG: If you look at the industrial revolution and steam power, agriculture was there first. We have to be innovative in agriculture: being competitive, reducing costs to make food affordable. Good quality, safe food at an affordable price. That’s the triangle, and trying to hit those three together is really hard.

DS: Our own consumption has become much more diverse, which is a good thing. But if you can’t get fresh tomatoes, that’s not a survival issue. What is a survival issue is the purchasing power of the consumer. Again, that brings us back to disparities. If you have sections of your communities that are so poor they can’t afford food — on a global scale the case can be made there’s enough food to feed the population. It’s the distribution and affordability.

PM: You’ve said the general public don’t think of farming as technologically sophisticated. Can you say more about that?

DG: The perception of agriculture is so out of date and so backwards that very few people really realize the requirements to put food on people’s plates. They don’t understand the knowledge, the skill, the technology. You are a jack of all trades.

CvdH: We’ve been evolving with technology forever, but it’s not just about technology. It’s about empowerment and knowledge. One of the best parts of my job is seeing diverse operations, different types of business structures, and I wish I could show the public that side of it, and it would shift that conversation. It’s amazing to see the resiliency in the farm community.

DS: What you are talking about is the reality of family farms.

DG: And it’s not just the farms, it’s the job security and employment farms bring to rural Nova Scotia communities as well. In Atlantic Canada, agriculture as a model is very different to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

CvdH: There’s a lot of biodiversity on our farms.

PM: Can agricultural technology affect climate change?

DS: Let’s look at nitrogen fertilizer. On a global scale, much of the nitrogen applied goes as runoff into lakes. Can we apply that fertilizer in a more controlled manner? We are getting better at it all the time. Same thing goes for water. It makes me mad when I visit India and see people are still engaged in flood irrigation. Drip irrigation and sprinkle irrigation are much more efficient. These are examples of things that make agriculture more climate-friendly, but also more economically sustainable.

DG: Building on what Deep just said, we have a precision agriculture team here, and they’ve been working with the blueberry industry for decades. In the old days, you would have covered a field with weed killer. Now, they’ve developed technology that allows us to drive through a field of wild blueberries and the computer identifies whether it’s a blueberry bush or a weed. You have this variable-rate sprayer with multiple nozzles that drives across the field, so there’s a reduction in chemicals, reduction of costs, you’re not putting the same number of aerosols into the environment, and you’re improving efficiency. We are also working on the efficiency of the harvesters, and with drone technology. And we are moving into the phase of autonomous vehicles. With the fleet of tractors we have on campus, you can have one operator driving several tractors. It’s absolutely incredible.

CvdH: I think this is one piece of the puzzle, and it’s an important piece of the puzzle. But there are other innovations: intercropping systems, plant breeding, animal breeding in terms of genetics. Technology also plays a role in addressing our labour challenges. We are not necessarily going to change the number of workers we need, but the skill level we’re going to need in our workforce will be very different.

PM: What about the role of animal agriculture?

DG: There are people who think animal ag is the culprit, and needs to go. My view is animal agriculture is not going to go away if we are going to meet the nutritional and dietary requirements of 10 billion people over the next 30 years, it’s certainly not going to be all plant-based. Yes, we need to increase plant production and plant protein, but we need to look at alternative sources. Aquaculture is a great opportunity for us.

DS: Another thing I would say is don’t forget culture. We can produce meat artificially in the lab and it probably will be produced at scale at some point, but human beings don’t eat only with their mouth. They eat with their eyes and with their nose. People will always continue to use their senses for eating. We can’t survive as a species simply by upgrading our iPhones every six months.

PM: It’s been a great conversation. Any final thoughts?

DG: I would add that in the same way that agriculture has always been an early adopter of technology, it has also been a driver of technological development. Agriculture has always been keen and open to working with researchers, because they understand the importance of the research and putting it into practice. There’s a constant symbiosis between academia, research and the industry.

CvdH: We are sitting here in this boardroom. We are so lucky to have this Faculty of Agriculture in our small Atlantic region, to be able to work so closely between research and industry. It’s a real asset.


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