Saving forests

“Innovation is the reason one quarter of all forests exist.” Jack Bobo made this statement during a presentation at the Grow Canada conference at the end of November. “There are 3.6 billion hectares of forest left on the planet,” he says. “If we farmed today the way we did in the 1960s, we would need to remove another one billion hectares of forest to produce the same amount of food.”

Bobo is The Nature Conservancy’s director for global food and water policy. The Nature Conservancy* is a Washington-based non-government organization (NGO) with many environmental priorities – tackling climate change, protecting oceans, land and freshwater, and providing food and water sustainably.

Farmers, in general, have not warmly embraced the priorities of environmental NGOs, but here is Jack Bobo hailing the productivity-enhancing and forest-saving innovations of modern agriculture.

Continuing to produce more per unit of land can help preserve the forests we have left and rest soils that need a break from annual crops. The next forest-saving innovations ready for implementation include gene-editing tools that can advance complex traits like water and nitrogen efficiency, to give just two examples. They are waiting for regulatory approval.

“Every innovation that will scale by 2030 is available today,” Bobo says, “but I’m a regulatory pessimist. I’m not sure we’ll be allowed to use them.”

CropLife Canada, a partner in the Grow Canada conference, represents the developers, manufacturers and distributors of plant science innovations, including pesticides and biotechnology. Pierre Petelle is the president and CEO of CropLife Canada. “We need smart regulation to make sure environment and human health are ensured,” Petelle says. Beyond that, he and CropLife have asked, for years, for a regulatory system that enables, not deters, innovation.

People like Jack Bobo, who see how modern farming practices can co-exist with the environmental movement, may help show regulators a science-based path forward. “When we look at coalitions in agriculture, we are always looking for other groups to show how ag can help achieve environmental and social goals,” Petelle says.

When environmental NGOs like The Nature Conversancy support the environmental benefits of modern agriculture innovations, perhaps the general public will, too. The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity does an annual survey of public trust in the food system. When the 2022 survey asked Canadians to rate their trust in specific groups, farmers ranked highest. Forty-two per cent of people scored farmers eight or higher, out of 10, for trust, about the same as 2021. However, trust in Canadian agriculture overall was 28 per cent, down a statistically significant three percentage points from 2021. In its report on the 2022 survey, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity wrote, “A sustainable food system, one that meets the needs of all food system stakeholders, while preserving our environment, must be trusted. Building a trusted and sustainable food system is a journey of continuous improvement best achieved through open cooperation across the entirety of the food system.”

Ertharin Cousin, who also spoke at the Grow Canada conference, is the founder and CEO for Food Systems for the Future, a global organization with a mission to support “agriculture enterprises to sustainably, measurably and profitably improve nutrition outcomes” with a focus on underserved communities. She calls NGOs like The Nature Conservancy “new partners.”

“It’s no secret that the climate and agriculture communities have not always shared a symbiotic agenda, but that’s changing,” Cousin says.

Cousin tells me she recently spoke with Darci Vetter, global head of policy and government relations with The Nature Conservancy, for a podcast. “Darci underscored the reality that we’ve come a long way in the last decade within these two communities to both acknowledge the realities of climate change and align solutions that help create more resilient sustainable agricultural practices,” Cousin says. “We won’t always agree 100 per cent of the time, but it’s encouraging how much common ground we share as we drive forward efforts to realize a modern, climate-smart food system.”

People need to know that innovative agriculture saves forests. The Nature Conservancy knows this and can help the farm sector tell that story.

*The Canadian arm of The Nature Conservancy is Nature United. Nature Conservancy of Canada, though modelled on The Nature Conservancy, is a separate organization.

Canola Digest - March 2023