The pressure is on! Farmers around the world are facing incredible challenges to increase food production and protect the environment, all while adapting to and mitigating climate change. To date, approaches to how we tackle these complex and interconnected agricultural issues have been lacklustre.
All too often, one-dimensional approaches to developing new technologies and practices are used. While they provide some gains, their narrow focus generally leads to low or slow adoption rates of sustainable farming practices and technologies, thus limiting their benefit at a broad scale. In turn, this leads to policies and programs that may not be sufficiently far-reaching or may not reflect the urgency of climate change.
What is really needed is a paradigm shift in how technologies and sustainable farming practices are developed.
Acknowledging this, the Government of Canada proposed a new model of innovation at the 2018 G20 Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (G20-MACS) (https://www.macs-g20.org/) that recognizes and works with the complexity of climate change and other challenges facing the agricultural sector. It is called Agroecosystem Living Labs, which Canada, along with nine other countries and the European Commission, define as:
“transdisciplinary approaches which involve farmers, scientists and other interested partners in the co-design, monitoring and evaluation of new and existing agricultural practices and technologies on working landscapes to improve their effectiveness and early adoption.” (G20 MACS, 2019)
The Agroecosystem Living Lab approach is based on three core principles (Figure 1):
Co-design and co-development with end users: Farmers are at the centre of innovation and actively participate in developing new technologies and practices from the start to the finish.
A transdisciplinary approach: Partners from various disciplines work together to develop solutions to a common issue.
Evaluation on working landscapes: New technologies and practices are evaluated in the real-life setting where they are used: working farms and their surrounding landscapes.
Figure 1. The three core principles of an agroecosystem living lab (ALL)
Source: G20 MACS. 2019. Agroecosystem Living Laboratories: Executive Report. G20 Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS) International Agroecosystems Living Laboratories (ALL) Working Group.
This new innovation approach enables effective and co-created responses to persistent agri-environmental issues of national significance. It takes into account unique local conditions, differences between agricultural production systems, and the needs and experiences of farmers. In essence, local and practical solutions can be developed to tackle key international and national issues such as climate change, soil health, water management, biodiversity, and habitat conservation, all while ensuring farms remain productive and prosperous.
While countries around the world are developing their own specific policies and strategies based on this new way of thinking, in Canada, the Agroecosystem Living Lab approach is being applied through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Living Laboratories Initiative (www.agr.gc.ca/livinglab).
The Living Laboratories Initiative is a network of sites across the country where local farmers, researchers from various disciplines, including socio-economic experts, develop and create practical technologies and sustainable farming practices together on working farms. The initial phase of the Living Lab Network began in April 2019 with the establishment of two sites, one in Atlantic Canada and one in the Canadian Prairie region. Two additional sites, in Quebec and Ontario, will be launched in 2020, with a fifth site in British Columbia being phased in by 2021.
Implicit in the agroecosystems living lab approach is an acknowledgement that the social sciences play a crucial role in both the implementation of innovation processes and in understanding their socio-economic outcomes, which strongly affect successful agricultural policy innovation and implementation targeting climate change. For this reason, in addition to the scientific components of developing and testing beneficial management practices and technologies, the Living Laboratories Initiative also includes a socio-economic component. Socio-economic research based on the data collected at the farm level will provide farmers with credible estimates of the on-farm costs and benefits of practices and technologies adopted as well as the public benefits involved. In this way, the analyses will help farmers make more informed decisions when considering the implementation of a practice or technology on their farm.
This novel approach is intended to accelerate our response to climate change through a quicker adoption of beneficial management practices and technologies. It is also an experiment unto itself as researchers and policy specialists are studying, tweaking, and developing best practices when implementing such an approach. For example, the Living Laboratories Initiative is grappling with questions such as, what is the best way to engage diverse teams, including farmers, to ensure that processes are efficient and effective? And, although this new direction holds promise, can we prove that it really does make a difference in helping our country and the world tackle important environmental issues? Indeed, the pressure is on.