Lorie asked me if I’d write an editorial for the newsletter and when asked about subject matter, she gave me pretty much carte blanche.

I like the name of the newsletter, The Innovator. It suits the thinking of many in this organization. Innovation has, and will continue to be, a strength of those involved in agriculture, worldwide.

Technology is more advanced every year and will require greater knowledge from, and provide more opportunities to, those who embrace what is possible. Part of that technology is the ability to track what we grow, where we grow it, how we grow it and what inputs go into growing what we produce. As we have seen more and more food re-calls in recent years, knowing the route food has taken, be it processed or not, is becoming more of a necessity than an idea. Traceability of all foods, from farm to table, is seen by many as an essential.  What this points to is more oversight by government, processors and retailers than we have ever seen in history.  Part of that oversight is, and will be, a demand by buyers and processors that growers adhere to methods of production that suit the market requirements. Those demands will mean implementing techniques that meet the marketing methods of the buyer/processor such as organic or “sustainable”.  I put the word sustainable in italics since no one body or processor has come up with a final definition of the word or what they determine “sustainable” agriculture to be.  Probably the best definition I have seen is “Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.

There are three accepted underlying principals of sustainability, which are “profit, society and environment”.  OSCIA has in fact been a long-time promoter of “sustainable” agriculture; they (we) just use different terms. The mission statement of: Facilitate responsible economic management of soil, water, air and crops through development and communication of innovative farming practices, speaks directly to the principals of profit and environment and by extension, society.

So, where am I going with this?  The first question we need to ask ourselves is, are our current production methods “sustainable” for generations?  Will our methods compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs?  Can we produce enough food and profit to sustain ourselves, and society, without impeding future generations’ ability to meet their needs?  Should we be concentrating on ultimate yield or optimum yield, they are not he same?  Do we manage our soils to have the least possible impact on the environment while producing a crop efficiently?  Every year we find we need more herbicides, more fungicides, more inputs, is that sustainable?  If buyer and processors and, ultimately society are going to demand that we meet certain criteria in how we produce our products, be that meat, milk or grain, should we not have an integral say in determining that criteria?

Many of us have adopted systems that meet or exceed current “sustainable” criteria, but we are not getting public credit for the effort, expense and innovation that has gone into that adaptation. By promoting the efforts farmers make to protect the environment, water and soil, society will hopefully see that we have their best interest at heart.

I realize that for the most part, I am preaching to the choir through this publication. Too often we see the result of poor or misguided management of soils and getting the message to those managers seems to be a challenge. Better that we, and our organizations, find a way to educate them than to have more rules forced on us by bodies that have minimal knowledge of agriculture.

Public promotion of the application of systems such as 4R, min-till, no-till, cover-crops, inter-cropping, proper rotation etc, is needed to inform the buying public that their food is produced in the safest, most environmentally “sustainable” method possible. While many of us are “commodity” producers, much of what we produce eventually ends up on grocery shelves in some form or another.

Companies like Maple Leaf Foods, Kellogg’s and others are profiting from methods they are imposing on their growers. Methods that many of us have used for years. Should we not be getting a fair share of that profit? We’re the ones incurring the costs of implementation. If we are to have a chance of a seat at the table, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. I’m sure everyone will have their own list.

One: Who is going to determine our definition of “sustainable”? In the same vein, who will determine what crop production methods and/or systems are “sustainable”? Organizations like OSCIA and OSN should be involved as well as Grain Farmers of On. We have a vast array of very knowledgeable people at U.of G. and OMAFRA that could be called upon.

Two: Who is going to do the promotion I speak of? We all pay into commodity boards, often more than one. Should not a major part of their mandate be the promotion of our products and methods? We hear a barrage of ads lamenting the fact that U.S. farmers are getting countless millions from their government while we get more taxes. Does the urban public really care? Would those advertising dollars not be better spent telling the same consumer just what the Ontario or Canadian farmer is doing to benefit all of society?  We also pay into GFO’s, would they not be a good place to start promoting the beneficial activities of our “sustainable” agriculture?

Three: How do we establish and police the criteria required to be certified as “sustainable”? I use the term “certified” because without some established form of adherence to those criteria, we have no credibility.  I believe this again goes back to our commodity boards as well as organizations like OSCIA and OSN. They are two of the most knowledgeable in crops and soils management.  There are numerous templates to use for determining criteria. The organic movement managed a very similar process years ago.

Four: How can we, or should we mandate how farmers manage their land? It is their land. This question has been around almost as long as “production” agriculture. “We” may not have any say in the future, society, ie: government may tell us what we can and can’t do. Take a look at some of the drastic changes taking place in Europe, especially France. Do we want to loose control of the products available, or do we become proactive and take the lead on managing the use of those products, and more importantly our land, in a way that benefits, not only us, but future generations.  Doing nothing is not an option. If agriculture wants to maintain some semblance of autonomy, we need to be proactive. Not doing so, invites commodity buyers and processors, and ultimately society, to do it for us, and it will be to their advantage first.

I am not asking anyone to agree entirely with me, if you don’t, use the Innovator to express your alternative solutions or ideas. Don’t just tell me I’m wrong, give us an alternative. Part of the benefit of an on-line newsletter is the ability to correspond to each other. It’s our organization and our newsletter.

Alan Lyons, Mulmur ON      twitter, @lyonseed

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