Prof. Rene Van Acker - Valuing Agriculture, Food & Farmland

The recent "Taters Not Craters" dance was more than a party to celebrate our victory over the Highland mega quarry. It was also an opportunity to launch the next phase of our efforts to preserve Ontario's prime farmland and source water regions: Food and Water First.

  Professor Rene Van Acker of the University of Guelph kindly gave up a Saturday evening to speak to the NDACT gathering about the importance of our soil, water and farmers. Many people asked for a copy of his presentation and here it is. Thanks again to Professor Van Acker for sharing his expertise with us! 


Valuing Agriculture, Food and Farmland - Comments from an Agriculturalists Perspective.


Rene Van Acker, Ph.D., P.Ag., Professor and Associate Dean, Ontario Agricultural College (OAC), University of Guelph:  NDACT AGM, February 16, 2013 


Thank you to the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Task Force and the organizers of this event  for the opportunity to discuss such an important topic.And to put my comments in some context - I am approaching this from the perspective of someone who is an expert I agriculture, agriculturalist.


In this respect, and from that perspective, there are four critical elements that must be taken into consideration if we are to fully value agriculture, food and farmland.These four elements are; Soil, Water, Genetic diversity, and Farm and Farmer viability

I start with Soil – and an important place to start with soil is to know that it Is formed over geological time scales and not human generational time scales and therefore it is essentially a non-renewable resource. And yet, it is fundamental to human life on the planet because it is fundamental to plant life and to productive farming. Sometimes people suggest that global climate change “global warming” will be great for Canada because it will allow us to farm in “the North” – this is a wholly misinformed idea because the reality of limitations to farming in the North are often not climate but lack of soil. We farm where there is soil and we don't where there isn't. And it is not only loss of soil that is a concern - but quality of soil - quality soil is extremely rare and valuable  – if you were to ask Dr. Ralph Martin, the Loblaw Chair in Sustainable Food Production at the University of Guelph what the critical measure of sustainability is for food production  - top of his list would be soil organic matter and soil quality - something so critical and precious - but no one talks about it. The loss AND degradation of our soils, globally, is a very important issue that goes largely unnoticed, perhaps because soil isn’t cute or maybe soil suffers a bad rap, often being referred to as “dirt” - nonetheless, quality soil - farmland - is critical to human life on the planet and it is very valuable.

Water – the engine of life on the landscape is driven by water. Transpiration and the employment of water in photosynthesis are in many ways the foundational mechanisms of ecological life. So having water is very important, and drought is devastating for agriculture and food production (as we have saw last year across the American Midwest, and across much f southern Ontario, and over decades to devastating effect in especially fragile communities and countries in eastern and Sub-Saharan Africa). Here in Canada, crop insurance data shows us that the vast majority of crop insurance claims come from water related disasters - but not only lack of water, also too much water. People speak about global warming when they mean to speak about global climate change, if the change in climate we are facing was only warming, agriculturalists would not be very concerned, what concerns us is the true threat of global climate change which is that the variation in weather will increase tremendously. The unpredictability of weather and increasing extremes in weather (drought, flood, storms, hail) are very difficult to adapt to, and it is against this great threat that we recognize the real folly of simple approaches to complex problems (like producing food) and our sometimes ignorant disregard for valuable resources like water, and the critical role water plays in producing food which allows for human life on the planet.

Genetic resources – The value of genetics is in diversity. Diversity... it is how nature works, literally. The natural landscape is diverse not because that makes it look nice but because that is what eons of evolution looks like. The value of diversity in creating resilience in systems is fundamental. It is a law of nature, like gravity, and when we fight it, like fighting gravity, it takes a tremendous amount of energy, and when the energy is taken away, it all crashes to the ground. Diversity in our landscapes is essential and yet we do not even understand the extent to which this diversity is important and often we only recognize its importance when it is gone. At the University of Guelph, through a generous donation from the Weston Family Foundation and the leadership of Wendy and Tamara Rebanks we have an opportunity to hire a new Chair in Pollinator Conservation. And through the search process for this chair we have had an opportunity to see remarkable research from  world leading scientists in this area and what they have all shown us is that there is no question that diversity in the landscape promotes life, including living pollinators who in turn ensure fruit and seed production and food. They have also shown us that we are only just beginning to understand the impact of destroying pollinator (life) friendly agricultural landscapes and that there definitely needs to be an element of precaution in our treatment of farmland.


The last element I want to speak to is Farm and Farmer Viability – The importance of farmers..of having farmers, struck me in particular last spring when I was in Russia working on a possible research collaboration. Upon my return someone asked me about the potential I saw for Russian agriculture; “poor, in this generation, I said” - but why I was asked, don’t they have vast resources of deep chernozemic soils, excellence in science, favourable climates and access to water? Yes, they have all those things I agreed, but they are missing one crucial element,... Farmers. Post 1917 there is no longer any such thing as a Russian farmer. And post perestroika there was no transition from the collective farms to a regeneration of multitudes of independent owner-operator farmers - like we have here in Canada for example. Without farmers, Russian agriculture, any agriculture, will not progress or be productive, and it will not develop to be robustly productive and adaptive. Without true farmers, in this fashion, there is a lack of competition, no communities of learning, no diversity and robustness of enterprise, no distributed incentives to innovate and no farmland based dedication to farmland stewardship  – without a healthy and large population of farmers, agriculture is much less diverse, it is less progressive, less robust and fundamentally unsustainable.These elements then; Water, Diversity, Farmers and at the base of it all, good farmland, are all critical to human life on this planet and as such they are very valuable. But do we consider these factors in the valuation of what we do? most often we don't - and society is  still cavalier with farmland,  often giving it away for money now and denying the potential it holds for the future.And to this end, we might want to think about where future opportunities lie, even from a cold economic and job growth perspective. For example, at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC - where I work), and with leadership from our dedicated alumni, we commissioned a study in late 2011 to quantify the job opportunities in the agriculture and food sector in Ontario. This study, which we released a year ago, showed us that this sector, the Agriculture and Food sector in Ontario, which employs almost 250,000 Ontarians (ex retail and food service) continued to grow post 2008 and over the next 5 years is predicting job growth of 10-20%. That equals 25 to 50,000 more jobs over a 5 year period, just in this sector and just in Ontario. These are opportunities not to be ignored, opportunities that are built around agriculture and food, opportunities that ultimately, are built on farmland.....which is very valuable indeed.


Thank you to Donna T. for this submission by Professor Van Acker.