Science and Sustainable Farming

a banner with the title "Science and sustainable farming" with a photo of a wheat field and the headshot of a white man


Jason Lenz

Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops


The sustainability of farming in Canada has recently attained a higher profile in the public space.  Farmers are hearing from their customers, from governments and from the Canadian public about their expectations that farmers will take care of the land, the water, biodiversity, and most importantly, contribute to greenhouse gas reduction targets.  

Farming is complex and relies on the knowledge and experience of each of the individual 200,000 farm operators across the country. Variations in soil, topography, climate and farm types across the country mean that farmers are best placed to be the decision-makers on which practices will suit their situation. Increased stakeholder interest in the sustainability of farming has led to the promotion of a number of simplistic approaches to reduce GHG emissions on farms and improve soil health. One size definitely does not fit all, and farming practices applied in the wrong place can be counterproductive to both environmental and economic sustainability outcomes. It will be a challenge for farmers if their customers require production practices that are not viable for their farm.

Experience has shown that regionally based scientific research is the basis for the development of products and practices that can best respond to farm-to-farm variations. Farm organizations invest a significant amount of farmer money each year in research that all contribute to sustainability results, such as crop variety development to manage diseases, pests and climate variability, improved feed conversion in livestock and poultry and agronomic practices that make the best use of crop inputs. That investment, along with the work of government, academic  and private company researchers, will continue to be the best route to providing effective solutions to all challenges that farmers face, including from climate change and the need to do more with less. 

With growing interest in sustainability,  the ability to effectively measure the outcomes of farm practices is paramount. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has been calculating  aggregate agro-environmental indicators since 1981. Although there are some limitations to their use, these indicators place Canadian agriculture in an enviable position, as we can identify our strengths and weaknesses to help us determine where we can focus for continuous improvement. The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops (CRSC) is complementing that work through grain specific measurement and reporting that permit us to track our progress.   Other agriculture organizations are doing the same, and we have in Canada very credible and current information, for example, on the GHG intensity (GHG emissions per unit of product) of many farm products.  

These aggregate results are useful to respond to stakeholder interests, but there is rising interest in individual farm performance, through the documentation of practices and/or outcomes such as GHG emissions. The potential for the collection and utilization of electronic information is receiving a lot of attention. To be worth farmer investment in time and cost, the farmer must be the primary beneficiary and this information used as a tool to help manage the farm. Although we found that grain farmers are in general very comfortable with aggregate reporting, there is definitely concern as to reporting and sharing individual on-farm data with respect to privacy, ownership and the use to which this information could be placed. We expect heightened focus on individual on-farm data collection methods and uses of that data during the next few years.

The external pressures on farmers adopting sustainable farming practices may be more recent, but farmers themselves have had a much longer standing interest in sustainability. As a farmer, I know that my livelihood depends on healthy soils and clean water and air, and will strengthen the legacy of a strong, viable enterprise for my children and their children. It is in our interest to continually improve practices:  in the past, in the present and in the future. There is plenty of evidence that farmers have done just that even in the absence of regulatory pressure or oversight. As well, inputs that farmers use such as fuel, fertilizer and crop protection products,  are expensive so there is a built-in incentive to use them sparingly in the most effective and efficient way possible.

Over the past two years, the CRSC has held conversations with over six hundred grain farmers from all provinces on the practices that they implement to contribute to environmental sustainability, social responsibility and economic viability. They admit that there is always room for improvement but have expressed that they have adopted many science-based practices that have improved the standard of farm sustainability in Canada. Most frequently cited is the use of conservation tillage, which has dramatically improved soil health and in 2020 removed 5.1 megatonnes of CO2. Canadian farmers have implemented other beneficial practices on a wide scale, such as adding legumes (lentils, peas, beans and soybeans) to their crop rotations. Including pulses in crop rotation reduces the need for added nitrogen fertilizer, as legumes take nitrogen from its molecular form in the atmosphere and convert into nitrogen compounds in the soil.

Tackling climate change is an unprecedented challenge. Canada has many attributes that can position us to be among the most sustainable places to produce food and yet continue to be a strong contributor to world food security. One of our strongest attributes is our willingness to invest in science and work together to be the best that we can.