December 19, 2023
By: Elizabeth Daigle
Innovations in global food systems have emerged at COP28 as a significant opportunity to tackle climate change and create healthier communities. As the world’s population continues to grow, food production will need to increase by 25% to keep up with the demand. Paired with a rising need to conserve biodiversity, there is a compelling economic argument to increase global investments in regenerative agricultural systems. In turn, regenerative agriculture can lead to significant on-farm cost savings and promote biodiversity and farm resiliency. Despite the leadership of Canadian farmers in adopting sustainable production practices, it is estimated that 10% of croplands are moderately to severely eroded. The degradation of croplands costs the agriculture and agri-food sector close to $3.1 billion in unnecessary losses every year. These losses highlight a clear business case for expanding investments in farmer-led initiatives advancing regenerative agriculture on Canadian farms.
While many are still working to define the parameters associated with regenerative agriculture in Canada, common themes are emerging around practices that simultaneously target soil health and maintain farm profitability. Some examples of these practices include reduced tillage, cover cropping, efficient fertilizer use, efficient use of pesticides, and diversifying crop rotations. Adopting these practices under the right conditions is proven to restore soil health, support biodiversity, protect watersheds, and improve the resilience of Canadian farms. As an added benefit, healthier agricultural ecosystems have the potential to be significant carbon sinks; experts estimate that Canada could sequester 9.78 Mt of CO2e by 2030 from adopting cover cropping alone, and another 6.27 Mt of CO2e from efficient nutrient management. Additionally, the economic and ecological benefits of adopting a regenerative agriculture approach offer a clear pathway for rural revitalization by providing Canadian farmers with an increasingly cost-effective strategy to scale food production, while reducing their environmental footprint and not compromising on their profitability. Implementing regenerative agriculture also increases the demand for local agribusiness and agronomic services, which contributes to the well-being of communities.
As the holiday season approaches and discussions at COP28 have closed, many Canadians are wondering how to celebrate the season in a sustainable way. With interest in regenerative agricultural practices on the rise in Canada, several prominent industry players have developed programs to support interested farmers in their transition - meaning some common items in your holiday feast may already be more sustainable than you think.
For example, whether you like your potatoes roasted or mashed, Canadian company McCain has committed to implementing regenerative practices on 100% of their potato farming acreage by 2030. Their strategy includes measuring key regenerative approaches such as minimizing soil disturbance, using cover crops, reducing pesticide use, and optimizing water use. One example of the result of these initiatives are the 168 hectares of cover crops planted on their flagship farm in New Brunswick, sequestering an estimated 192 tonnes of CO2e per year.
If you fancy some cranberry sauce on your plate, you’ll be happy to know that cranberry cooperative Ocean Spray is incorporating regenerative agricultural practices into their farming by using sustainable water management and efficient irrigation systems, as well as relying on rainwater to replenish their on-farm reservoirs. They promote biodiversity on their farms and in some places, Ocean Spray is actively restoring habitats for native plants and wildlife.
Practically speaking, farms are becoming more resilient through a combination of direct cost savings, reduced soil erosion, and better nutrient retention. It is estimated that the adoption of zero till in the prairies has saved farmers around $4.9 million in costs from 1985-2012. From a consumer's perspective, these savings directly reflect on the cost and quality of products.
As regenerative practices emerge on Canadian farms, amplifying farmer voices to co-create innovative production systems will be crucial to ensure that future adoption schemes prioritize the resilience of farming communities. Successful approaches will require balancing competing priorities at different scales, such as meeting national climate targets while maintaining farmer profitability, conserving on-farm biodiversity, and keeping Canada’s food systems accessible and affordable. Incentivizing the adoption of regenerative practices by focusing on positive outcomes, such as better soil health, healthier produce, reduced emissions, and increased biodiversity, can provide Canadian farmers with the creative space to develop regenerative farms systems that are best suited to different local ecosystems and socio-economic realities.
Regenerative practices are gaining traction in Canada’s agricultural and agri-food sector. Led by innovative farmers, actors in Canada’s food systems have widely acknowledged the benefit of investing in more sustainable and regenerative value chains. Focusing on an outcome-based approach, the Smart Prosperity Institute is excited to continue working with farmers, industry, environmental groups, and other relevant stakeholders to advance a regenerative transition in Canada’s food systems that supports a full range of economic, environmental, and social benefits. This holiday season, we invite you to take a moment to consider all the possibilities of a net-positive future for Canada’s food systems.