Conversations about sustainable farming usually result in tech companies and organic farmers speaking ill of each other, their words displaying basic ideological differences between tech-heavy large corporate farming and more humanistic small-scale operations.
A conference hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture last week saw proponents of both approaches share the stage to discuss how to make regenerative farming more widespread across the province. Regenerative farming is a loose collection of techniques aimed at improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and boosting biodiversity.
While regenerative practices have sustained many small-scale, Indigenous, and organic farms for centuries, the approach has seen booming interest in recent years. Huge food companies like McCain Foods and General Mills have pledged to use the regenerative practices on their farms in a bid to reduce their environmental footprint.
B.C. is the first province to explicitly incorporate regenerative agriculture into its food and farming policies.
“We (want to) normalize the idea of regenerative agriculture,” said Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.
There is a catch: No one agrees on what regenerative farming exactly means.
“Regenerative farming is more of a mindset,” said Cedric MacLeod, an agronomist and farmer in New Brunswick.
He explained that regenerative agriculture encompasses any practices that support soil health, essential to growing nutrient-rich, healthy crops. Healthy soils also reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, sequester carbon, reduce erosion, and help buffer the impacts of extreme weather.
However, unlike organic certification, a third-party designation that requires farmers to use specific farming practices and often enshrines social and cultural values, regenerative farmers aren't limited in the technologies they use or the social and economic values they support.
Critics say that opens the door to dangerous possibilities where tech-heavy regenerative farming could become a foil for companies to avoid change.
Regenerative agriculture is booming right now. But what it is exactly and the role tech should play in its future are up for debate. #Farming #SustainableFood #FoodSupply #BC
Chief among their concerns is the ability of tech-driven regenerative farming to transform the economic model that drives industrial farming. That model is profitable only for a few very big farms that typically grow commodity crops, explained Irena Knezevic, a professor at Carleton University who studies technology and agriculture.
“What we're seeing is that these technologies are developed in a way that supports ... a very particular kind of farming,” she said. “They focus on large-scale production of a single crop and typically, it's cash crops. It's not horticulture.”
While they could be effective in reducing the environmental impact of industrial farms, they risk further entrenching high-tech agriculture and major corporations at the expense of smaller and more diversified farms, she said. In a September report, the UN made clear that more diversified farms are essential to tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, and global hunger.
“At stake is really our ability to produce food for the future. If we're trying to fix problems caused by technology (with) more technology, we have no reason to believe it will work,” added Knezevic.
That's not the only issue. Agri-businesses are under increasing pressure to stop harmful industrial farming practices like heavy pesticide use. In their place, these companies are increasingly using high-tech robots, AI, and big data to reduce their emissions, pesticides and fertilizer use, and measure how much carbon they can sequester in farmers' fields, explained Kelly Bronson, a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in big tech and agriculture.
While these data may appear innocuous, they could be used by agri-businesses to shape the future of food globally to the benefit of major corporations, regardless of the social, economic, or environmental costs.
“There's no reason we shouldn't think of Monsanto (now Bayer) as the new Facebook,” she said.
They acknowledged that emerging technologies can be tremendously beneficial to farmers, helping with everything from weather monitoring to feeding cows. To be successful, however, these machines need to be designed for a diversity of farmers, and the data they generate is largely protected from misuse.
Knezevic and Bronson's concerns were echoed last year in a controversy following a 2020 report commissioned by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture pushing the province to rely on high-tech farming, or agritech, to sustainably meet its food needs. The findings were blasted at the time by dozens of farm advocates and food scholars in the province who feared the approach would entrench industrial farming and corporate control over food, a handful of whom spoke at the province's recent event.
It's a tension the event tried to address, said Popham.
“I've spoken to so many farmers — small, medium, and large — and I know they all use forms of agritech,” she said. “With this conference, it was very, very important not to put up barriers between organic, conventional, regenerative, large-scale, small-scale (farmers). It was an umbrella for everyone to come under.”