Expert opinion

Local solutions from global cooperation

Money and time always seem in short supply. In the case of Canada’s agriculture and food sector – and as articulated by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), our national agriculture ministry – constraints from both sides are ongoing issues when it comes to research and technological development.

In response, AAFC and other groups are hoping to offset financial and time-related setbacks with greater international cooperation and knowledge transfer, as well as a more transdisciplinary approach to research domestically.

The rhetoric is pretty high-level right now. But as an agricultural writer, and someone who will have to contend with very different environmental challenges over his (hopefully long) farming career, the inclusivity and cooperative nature of that rhetoric is encouraging.

An inclusive, practical approach to research

As of last year, AAFC announced Canada will be taking a “Living Laboratories” approach to agricultural research and tech-development. This is an overarching initiative intended to solve more localised problems through cooperative participation between farmers, researchers, and others.

In other words, farmers are supposed to be directly involved with the design, and on-farm evaluation, of new and existing agricultural practices and technologies. The idea is to improve local effectiveness and early adoption.

The idea that policy designed to benefit the environment will force everyone to adopt a specific practice, whether or not it actually works, is a perpetual concern in this vast and varied country.

Farmer-focused solutions generally have a better ring to them

In my own area, how farmers are expected to manage phosphorous runoff into the Great Lakes is a good example of one such issue – the solutions to which are more of a grab-bag than universal prescription.

While knowledge-transfer isn’t exactly a novel idea, it’s good to see an increasing focus on producer-verified solutions to sustainability problems. Farmer-focused solutions generally have a better ring to them.

More accessible global knowledge

There’s another positive – the Living Labs concept is being adopted internationally. Canada is one of 19 countries (plus the European Union) participating in the annual Group of Twenty (G20) Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists, which is a separate add-on to the more general G20 economic summit held each year.

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This meeting is stylised as an opportunity to discuss major challenges to sustainable agricultural production globally, with the hope of facilitating local solutions. As of the last meeting held in Japan, this group has itself adopted an “Agroecosystem Living Labs” approach to research – the characteristics of which mirror its preconceived Canadian counterpart.

AAFC spokespeople say the meeting also serves to make up for domestic funding and capacity challenges in agricultural research; meaning, it’s easier for us to discover someone else already has an answer than re-learning it ourselves.

Need for more investment dollars

While budget constraints are likely not unique to Canada (the ag-research funding realities of other countries are unknown to me), there certainly seems to be a need for more investment dollars. This is particularly true as governments in this country continue trying to solve overarching budget deficit problems.

The government of Ontario recently announced $ 200 million budget reduction for our provincial ag-ministry, just as one example.

Reiterating these points is Brian Gray, assistant deputy minister for science and technology at AAFC, says this international cooperation will allow Canadian researchers and farmers to solve environmental challenges that are “too big to do alone.”

It also gives meeting participants – Gray himself being one – a wider knowledge-base on environmental issues relevant to agriculture, from which they can advise policymakers.

Phosphorous loss into waterways and biodiversity decline

In a recent interview, Gray contextualises the practicality of a Living Labs concept, at both a national and international level, with 2 Canadian environment and farm production issues: phosphorous loss into waterways and biodiversity decline in southern Manitoba, as well as pesticide runoff and soil erosion in Prince Edward Island.

Brian Gray, assistant deputy minister for science and technology at AAFC:

I think we are mature enough to understand that one size doesn’t fit all

“Actually learning something from a site that’s completely different could lead to scientific breakthroughs to help us better understand our own system,” says Gray. “Recognising the tools that would trigger those sorts of things would be site appropriate. I think we are mature enough to understand that one size doesn’t fit all.”

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Farmers are supposed to be directly involved with the design, and on-farm evaluation, of new and existing agricultural practices and technologies. - Photo: AFP
Farmers are supposed to be directly involved with the design, and on-farm evaluation, of new and existing agricultural practices and technologies. - Photo: AFP

In other words, the discoveries, lessons, and tech-advances made in hot dry areas (e.g. the Southwestern United States) could be adapted to cooler, wetter environments in Canada – and vice versa. Because there is no formal structure to the G20 ag-science forum, too, Gray says its easy for any subset of the group to get together on topics most relevant to them.

“We don’t have enough money or capacity to do this alone. We think it would be great to have other countries doing the same things at the same time […] to share best practices and lessons learned,” he says.

Spending on tech & techniques that work

A communique from attendees at the last G20 ag-science meeting also identified several overarching areas of key research interest. These include “transboundary” plant pest and pathogens, and the increasing ease in which they spread, as well as the need for “climate-smart” technology – such as more crops resilient to climatic extremes, or better methods of carbon sequestration to address greenhouse gasses.

Explicit focus on greater collective cooperation

Again, the idea that one can learn from others is really not new. What is encouraging is the explicit focus on greater collective cooperation to develop technologies that farmers can actually use. For this reason, and despite how high-minded as the “Living Labs” concept sounds, I can’t help but be optimistic.

My family is not large. Our farm and farm-business budget is similarly sized. We, like the governments that represent us, do not have enough time or money to invest in practices and technologies, whether equipment or otherwise, that don’t work.

Who knows – maybe a discovery made in Australia will save me money one day.

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