Authored by: Justine Taylor, Director of Stewardship and Sustainability, CropLife Canada.
April 22, 2023 marks the 53rd anniversary of Earth Day. There is perhaps no industry more dependent on nature than agriculture – and no industry with a greater interest in protecting and nurturing the environment for future generations. Earth Day represents an important opportunity to celebrate agriculture’s progress on sustainability and to continue to challenge ourselves to do more as we work towards feeding a growing population while tackling the challenges of climate change.
The plant science industry is committed to developing solutions for farmers that help them in their efforts to be more productive and more sustainable. And as Canada and the world work towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) that aim to free the world from hunger, poverty and inequity while tackling the challenges of climate change by 2030, the plant science industry is committed to doing its part.
Fortunately, there has already been a lot of work done to develop and deploy transformative solutions so farmers can grow more food on less land using less water and other resources – and the journey continues.
More Food, Less Waste
Part of what makes global challenges complex is that they’re often interconnected. For example, growing seasons and agricultural land are changing in many parts of the world due to climate impacts, forcing the need to rethink what can grow where. At the same time, the human population is pushing toward 10 billion by 2050, meaning there will soon be many more mouths to feed.
That creates pressure to maximize food production on the farmland that is available (SDG 2: Zero Hunger) and to ensure as much food as possible actually gets consumed (SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production).
Here in Canada, the federal government has made it a priority to ensure Canadians have access to affordable, nutritious, sustainably produced food, and to find “game-changing solutions” to food waste. Plant science and agricultural innovation are already helping on both fronts – and poised to do more.
Plant breeding alone has driven a 50 percent increase in crop productivity over the last century, ensuring Canadians have access to a steady supply of food.. That makes good food more available — and more affordable. The cost of many staple foods in Canada would be 45% higher without plant science innovations. And in an era of high food inflation, doing everything we can to shield food prices from additional increases is critical to combatting food insecurity.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 40 percent of crops are lost to pests globally. Plant breeding innovations that deliver hardier and more resilient crops coupled with pesticides that protect crops from insects, weeds and diseases allow farmers to get the most out of their crops leaving less wasted in the field.
Plant breeding innovations, including gene editing, are also driving progress on food quality and longevity. The longer fruits and vegetables last, the less likely they are to go to waste. One well-known example is The Arctic® Apple, which can stay fresh up to 28 days after slicing.
To Protect and Preserve
The way we grow food has a direct impact on climate change (SDG 13: Climate Action) and biodiversity (SDG 15: Life on Land). Government of Canada programs like the Resilient Agricultural Landscape Program and Agricultural Climate Solutions recognize this and seek to harness the positive potential of sustainable agriculture.
Here again, the plant science industry is already fully engaged.
Plant scientists are actively developing crop varieties that are more adaptable and resilient to changing climate conditions. And sustainable approaches to weed control are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fuel use on farm.
Weeds are a significant challenge for farmers competing with their crops for water, nutrients and sunlight. If left unchecked, weeds can take over and destroy an entire field, wasting all of the effort and resources the farmer has put into growing that crop.
While mechanically removing weeds (tilling) is one way to deal with them, this practice can be damaging to the soil, requires the use of a lot of fuel, and releases greenhouse gases stored in the soil. Herbicide-tolerant crops allow farmers to apply an herbicide to a crop to control weeds without harming the plants and without the need to disturb the soil. The wide-spread adoption of conservation and no-till farming practices in Canada has reduced greenhouse gas emissions and significantly improved soil health.
Plant science and agricultural innovation also support biodiversity by minimizing the overall amount of land needed for farming. Thanks to plant biotechnology and pesticides, nearly 34 million acres that might have been needed to grow food have instead been left in their natural condition.
For Healthier Communities
Farming isn’t the only area where plant science and agricultural innovation contribute to the SDGs. Community green space is widely recognized as important to human health and wellbeing, and to making urban and suburban environments more livable. Grassy areas, for example, can reduce ambient temperatures by as much as 10 degrees compared to streets and sidewalks on hot summer days.
Plant science solutions help protect green spaces (SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities) by preserving plant health, deterring pests and preventing invasive species from taking root. Each Earth Day as we move towards the 2030 SDG targets is an opportunity to reflect on our successes and identify where we need to continue to improve when it comes to protecting the planet. Enabled by a predictable and science-based regulatory system, our industry can help deliver on the achievement of these important goals. We stand willing and ready to work with government and other partners to drive sustainability in Canada forward.