I strongly believe that our focus in the future should be on the nutrient density of plants and biodiversity.
Pushing our soils to produce more is terminal because there is burnout of the soil and the plant, along with financial harm to the farmer. Instead, we should look at soil health, seed health with nutrient density, and diversity.
In Canada, we farm and farm well. Those in organic farming contribute to a growing market and international demand. Conventional farmers are major contributors to the economy, particularly for exports.
We can attribute part of commercial growth to fertilizer and assume that First World countries such as Canada being major users. Globally, the numbers differ — developed countries use 29.8 per cent of the fertilizer while developing countries use 70.2 per cent. If China and India are accountable for 42.8 per cent of developing country usage on small-farm plots, how are these farmers paying for this?
They are not. In India for example, farming households are divided into regions and debt load is 75 per cent to 95 per cent depending on the region. It is estimated that a farmer needs one hectare of land to live in India, but most farms are smaller. Their top three expenses are fertilizer, pesticides, and labour — and their income averages $132 a month.
- More with Brenda Schoepp: A letter to a mother from a very grateful daughter
In China, farmers do not own the land and despite our perceptions of an urban China, 45 per cent of Chinese live in the country — with 86 per cent of those farmers tilling 1.6 acres or less. The hundreds of millions spent on farm subsidies has resulted in some massive abuses of the system, including the overuse of chemical and fertilizer. China’s ‘dirty soil’ is now a reality and farmers are becoming ever-more reliant on inputs and subsidies.
Pesticide chemical residue in human tissue has declined dramatically since the 1970s, but is still a measurable concern. Pesticide use per hectare of arable land is greatest in China, Mexico, Colombia, the U.K., Bolivia, France, Uruguay, and New Zealand.
I find it interesting that these are trading partners to Canada. Has international demand increased pressure on production to the point of pesticide abuse?
Consider the amount of food waste in the world — 1.3 billion tons per year. Why then is there so much pressure to produce more of the same?
Monocultures are not the answer in countries with volatile swings in weather and a history of drought. The soil needs to be ‘held together’ with a diverse set of actors including humus, C02, and complex sugars that ward off insects and feed microbes. Rotation, organic fertilizer, and dual seeding are less costly and may yield comparable results.
And what of the seeds we put in the ground?
Currently 99 per cent of the genetically modified seed is soy, corn, cotton, and canola. This is followed by alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, and eggplant. The United States has the largest percentage of GM seeded acres at 40.3 per cent followed by Canada, Brazil, and Argentina and then India, China, South Africa, Mexico and Spain. In Canada, 80 per cent of corn is GM seed.
Who owns this seed?
Today, four agriculture/chemical companies control 43 per cent of the commercial seed supply with the top 10 multinationals owning 65 per cent of commercial seed. A farmer signs on because he or she is promised bigger yield or better resistance. This has to be a knowledgeable decision as the cost of GM seed has risen more than 325 per cent since 1995.
The first link in a secure food supply is seed. In the past 80 years, 93 per cent of our diverse global seeds have disappeared. Look down from a plane and you will see just a handful of varieties on the Canadian Prairies. Take a walk in the grocery store and note the food imports from those places using the most commercial fertilizer and pesticide. Globalization has not entirely addressed what it should have — farm debt reduction and a reliable biodiverse food system that includes nutrient-dense plants. In the last five years farm debt has grown in Canada and is $20 billion in Alberta alone. Where are we going?
Nutrient-dense plants are high in minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. In addition, they are flavourful and even more importantly, they are adaptive.
Consider the analogy of a garden. We do not plant a garden in the rocks with one package of seeds. We plant a garden of variety, in good soil, infused with colour. We plant a garden for health and flavour and we may keep seeds and in particular seeds of plants that were different. Gardens protect us as a civilization as they invite biodiversity and provide a high level of nutrients.
We cannot as a society hand over our link to future food security by allowing seeds to be controlled or ignoring the value of nutrient-dense foods. The movement towards high inputs for high-volume production has decreased prices and increased farm debt.
We have the technology, science, and awareness to aid us in creating a diverse, nutrient-dense agriculture. We as farmers must own this.