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Agvocacy: Modern Agriculture Needs to Brag More

Recently I read an article in the February 13 issue of the Western Producer by Barb Glen covering a speech made by Bill McGregor, a soil bio-chemist, entitled “Agriculture Innovation Needs More Promotion”. As a former researcher, Mr. McGregor pointed out that great things have been accomplished in agriculture over the years. These innovations have had significant impacts on our abilities to feed ourselves, and yet this positive achievement has not effectively reached an “increasingly urban population”. McGregor thinks the agriculture industry has been “way, way too bashful in promoting our own abilities and what we’ve done”. By bringing this information to the public, we could help to spur more research, and to attract new and badly needed researchers to the field. This article touched on a real pet peeve of mine and I couldn’t agree with Mr. McGregor more.

One has only to look at the numbers, cited McGregor, to see production improvements over the years. His examples included the drop of Canadian land in summer fallow, from 27 million acres in 1975, to 21 million acres in 1986, to 11 million in 1999, to only 6 million in 2012. Summer fallow is when land is left idol for a year. It is tilled to control weeds but no crop is grown on the field for a year. This practice started during the 1st world war. Some farmers went off to war and the land couldn’t be seeded so neighbours helped out by tilling the field to keep the weeds down. When those fields were seeded the next year they grew substantially better crop than field seeded into stubble.

I believe the story goes that it was a dry year that year so scientists believed the summer fallow practice conserved moisture since no crop was using it. The conclusion was reached that the “extra” moisture got them through a dry summer. It also helped with weed control when no pesticides were available and the only in crop weed control was to walk the fields and pick by hand (my parents did plenty of that). What they didn’t realize back then was that the black soil got hotter than normal, accelerating the breakdown of the rich organic matter in the newly broken soil. That breakdown released nutrients N, P, K, S into the soil. The so-called “evidence” of water conservation and weed control led to summer fallowing becoming the recommended practice; that is until the 30s came along and the exposed soil all blew away in the droughts. We slowly learned from our mistakes, and now we conserve moisture by leaving the stubble mulch on the surface and catch more snow. We get nutrients from fertilizers applied and control weeds with pesticides and can grow crops every year without eroding the soil, and build organic matter instead of breaking it down. So many acres of soil have been saved by stopping the practice of summer fallowing, and this soil has been saved for future generations.

A second example of a significant achievement in agriculture is the invention and refinement of fertilizers and pesticides that are used to increase yields. In 35 years, yields have almost doubled from 20 bushels/acre wheat. This is a result of good research and improved farming practices, and we don’t brag about it nearly enough. We can now feed so many more people from the same amount of land, which is a huge improvement in efficiency. Plant breeding advancements have enabled new varieties of plants that can resist drought, wet conditions, pests and a variety of other challenges. These are truly innovative and tremendously important discoveries and innovations toward improving the lives of people around the world, and they don’t get enough media attention.

I agree with the sentiment of Mr. McGregor’s speech. It reminds me of things I’ve been reading and hearing about lately like how A & W is producing a burger with no hormones, and that companies are advertising that their products are GMO-free, when in some cases, the ingredients they use aren’t genetically modified in the first place. It amazes me that you could be eating fast food, and then be concerned about GMO products in that fast food, but the larger concern is that there is such a misperception out there in the public sphere.

What I think we need to get consumers thinking about is the good practices and science that is currently going on in the farming world rather than what fast food companies are telling people. The fast food industry is running sales promotions which are appealing to consumers and they are trying to take the high road, which is great, but they are doing it in a way that is not really helping the reputations of agriculture or food production. In effect, they are throwing agriculture under the bus, and making us out to be the bad guy, which just isn’t the case.

These companies have an opportunity to say that “this wheat, or this livestock has been raised in a way that has improved soil, made use of innovative farming techniques (such as no-till), and that our carbon footprint has been reduced by growing crops and raising animals in these extremely efficient ways, to make food safe and affordable”. The onus is on agriculture to get this message out in front of all of this noise, and we need to do it in a way that is media savvy.

The David Suzuki’s of the world are really good at getting media coverage with their negative message about things the average consumer doesn’t understand, the science of agriculture. But the Bill McGregor’s of the world, the scientists who know that the right way to produce food is the way we are doing it, and who seek to further advance plant breeding and control of pests in an environmentally friendly way and a way that is sustainable for long term agriculture, are not being heard in the same way. Somehow we have to combine our ability to do research and our ability to get to the media in a smarter way. I hope that NO-TILLville is one way to work towards educating the public about what no-till farming is all about, and why it matters.

The article I reference can be found at:http://www.producer.com/issue/the-western-producer-february-13-2014/

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