EU farm strategy may hurt soil health

Members of Canada’s grain value chain support the observations made in the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy on the need for environmental sustainability in food systems, including better food security, agriculture that is more sustainable globally, biodiversity enhancement, and the need for farmers to be profitable.

Canadian and European farmers deal with similar challenges of climate change, fertility use, agronomic pressure and farm profitability. Both continue to evolve their farming practices with broad adoption of new technologies to use resources more efficiently, improve sustainability, and provide healthy foods.

Canada has a strong and unique record on agricultural sustainability, and our agriculture researchers are examining further improvements to bring about positive impacts in the areas of invasive species, beneficial insects, protection of waterways, vegetative buffer strips, and soil biodiversity indicators. Integrated pest management (IPM) is also part of this list, including work on natural predators and disease and insect forecast maps.

We are currently studying the impacts of modern Canadian farming practices on climate change in particular, and would be pleased to share our lessons learned to help inform the dialogue in the EU toward refining strategies.

While Canadian farmers have broad sustainability objectives in common with F2F, we have differing views on how these can best be achieved, including questions about the impacts of setting time-bound pesticide-use reduction targets independent of IPM assessments.

We are concerned in particular by the potential for unintended consequences from F2F’s objective of changing farm practices outside of the EU, including in Canada.

While we recognize that there are often challenges in establishing causal links between specific farm management practices and environmental outcomes on soil, water, air and biodiversity, it is our experience that science-relevant policy goals must be evidence-based to bring about timely, positive change.

For example, soil erosion was identified as the primary environmental vulnerability of farming in the main grain-growing region of Canada. Equipment, technology and agronomic practices have evolved in tandem to address that risk. Our soil health is documented to have improved significantly over the last 40 years, partly due to the adoption of no-till cropping systems facilitated by the use of non-selective herbicides in place of tillage to control weeds.

The elimination of summerfallow and the adoption of crop rotations have also contributed to the improvement of soil health, allowing Canadian farmers to increase soil carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We would be pleased to share the supporting evidence for this, including conclusions by the Government of Canada that total greenhouse gases emitted per agricultural gross domestic product declined 47 percent during the past two decades, and that agricultural soils in Canada are removing more than six megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere annually.

Here is where we seek clarity on the EU’s blanket pesticide reduction goals in the F2F strategy, which are referenced in the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive.

The conservation/no-till practices that are now widespread in Canada depend on many innovations, including the use of herbicides to control weeds. In our view, there is a high probability that a majority of tillage would return were it not for the use of herbicides, which would, in turn, reverse much of the progress made on soil erosion and carbon sequestration.

We ask that this be carefully considered, including an evidence-based review of the expected outcomes of targets.

We would be pleased to work with the European Commission and European farmers to review Canada’s experience and data in the area of agricultural sustainability, including a broader discussion of potential unintended consequences outside the EU resulting from F2F.

Gord Kurbis, vice-president of trade policy and crop protection with the Canada Grains Council, originally wrote this article for European officials responsible for the EU’s pesticide reduction targets.

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