by DAVE PINK
Without constant innovation and the development of new agricultural technologies, Canadian farmers will be unable to meet the demands of an increasingly hungry world, warns the latest research from the Guelph-based George Morris Centre.
Sustainable agriculture – a philosophy that essentially calls on farmers to not take any risks with new technologies – is undesirable and unobtainable, says senior research associate Al Mussell.
History shows that everything from tillage to pest control must be constantly assessed, changed and improved upon, he says.
“Agricultural systems are artificial systems, and if we want to maintain them then we have to be constantly innovating,” says Mussell. “Once we get off this track then we’re in real trouble. To not be working in advance is scary. There’s a process at work here, and we can’t just step out of it.”
Mussell says the key goal in agriculture should not be sustainability, but resilience. “Nature is shifting all the time. Mother nature is pretty tough, pretty adaptable.” And we have to stay one step ahead of it, he says, or risk going hungry.
Mussell points out that even the best pesticides, such as the atrazine that was once widely used on corn, lose their effectiveness as weeds slowly adapt and chemical accumulations build up in the soil.
Then there are the catastrophic events such as floods and hurricanes that can change an agricultural landscape permanently.
Mussell was commenting on Part Four of the George Morris Centre series on agricultural fallacies. In the first paper, researchers refuted arguments that intensive agriculture on the existing farm land is bad, and argued that expansion on to pristine lands would do far more damage.
In the second paper, researchers argued against claims that small farm operations were better and more efficient than large farm operations. The facts say otherwise.
The third paper argued against the use of some farm technologies, while rejecting others. “Agriculture exists in a dynamic environment in which the many elements of the production system have complex links; changes in technology at one facet are linked to sequential adjustments and realignment in others. It also operates in a context of inherent uncertainty, from known but unpredictable hazards like weather, and from adaptation in organisms and unknown thresholds in biological systems,” it reads.
Mussell, in his most recent paper, concludes that all farm technologies will sooner or later fail and that the agricultural community has to be ready with replacements and solutions when they do. “The mainstream agricultural community needs to acknowledge that failures and unintended consequences can and do occur with agricultural technologies, as emphasized by the sustainable agriculture movement. The sustainable agriculture movement must acknowledge that the solution to the technological failures it highlights is not to restrict new technologies, but rather to accelerate the development of new, improved technologies,” the paper says.
The George Morris Centre is an economic agri-food research organization that offers research, consulting and custom education to the private sector, government and producer groups and organizations. BF