Viewed from the sky on a summer day, Takota Coen's family farm is a haven of trees and sinuous wetlands that pops out against the surrounding threadbare fields. Coppices and hedgerows run the length of the Alberta property, framing bright green pastures, houses and barns.
Zoom in to ground level, and the differences become more obvious. Bees and birds fly around, pollinating crops and nesting in the marshlands and forests. The earth is rich and thick with humus, a mix of decomposed plants and animals essential to healthy soil. Unlike most Canadian farmers, the Coens haven't used pesticides or artificial fertilizers since transitioning to organic farming in 1988.
As countries gather in Montreal to hammer out a new deal to protect global biodiversity, farms like the Coens’ could offer a blueprint for how we produce food in the future. Agriculture is the largest driver of biodiversity loss worldwide, with farming identified by the United Nations as a threat to 86 per cent of species at risk of extinction.
Researchers estimate we will need an additional 3.4 million square kilometres of land — an area as large as India and Germany combined — by 2050 to keep farming as we currently are. This would destroy habitat for hundreds of thousands of species, especially in tropical and subtropical regions.
Meanwhile, global pesticide use has roughly doubled since 1990, reaching over four million tonnes in 2019. Many of these chemicals are known to harm insects and other animals, including humans. The use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers has also soared, driving ocean dead zones and contributing to climate change.
"The biggest threats to biodiversity arise from exploitative land use — converting natural habitats to agriculture and farming land intensively — and these are driven by the economic demand for producing ever more calorie-rich, but nutritionally poor, food from fewer and fewer commodities grown at scale," explained Tim Benton, a professor and research director of emerging risks at the Chatham House, in a 2021 report.
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In Canada, Coen said this approach to farming has long been supported by government policies and farm subsidies aimed at increasing yields, despite its ecological impact. While the choice to give up on the approach has paid off, it remains difficult for many farmers balancing on a razor-thin bottom line.
These issues are poised to come up at COP15, the global biodiversity conference taking place in Montreal. Pesticides, fertilizers and land use are all on the agenda, with a preliminary draft of the agreement asking countries to commit to curb pesticide use by two-thirds and fertilizer runoff by half.
It is unclear how Canada will position itself on the issue, said David Suzuki Foundation senior policy analyst Lisa Gue. While she "certainly hope(s)" the country pursues the reduction targets, she noted Canada has barely mentioned pesticides — which are used both on crops and in industrial forestry — in its domestic biodiversity policies.
This absence comes as Canadian pesticide sales increased by about 20 per cent between 2014 and 2018. In contrast, the European Union last year committed to reducing pesticide use by half before 2030.
"Pesticides are designed to kill plants and animals. That's how it works, that's what they're for… These chemicals are negatively impacting biodiversity (and are) a recognized factor in biodiversity loss," said Gue.
Canada's pesticide laws currently assess the risk that each chemical poses to the environment and human health. Without considering their broader impacts on Canadian ecosystems, she explained, the rules mean federal regulators are "missing the forest for the trees."
For Coen, pesticides were the driver behind his family's decision to turn their backs on industrial farming. Both he and his mother are sensitive to chemicals. A series of health scares that his parents believed were caused by the chemicals led them to ditch pesticides in 1988 and adopt organic farming.
The transition wasn't easy. With no internet and few organic farmers nearby, the family initially saw a "massive decline" in yields because they hadn't yet started to farm ecologically. That changed in 2012 when Coen returned to the family farm after years away working as a carpenter.
An autodidact, Coen quickly started reading up on permaculture — a type of farming that aims to mimic nature — and ecology to improve the farm's fate. The readings pushed him to take a different approach to farming that sought to work with nature, as opposed to controlling it to maximize yields.
"There is a force in the universe that creates (life) out of nothing. When we learn to partner with that, we can literally create ecosystems that we depend on," he explained.
He rebuilt wetlands drained by previous owners to improve flood control, reduce the impact of drought and provide animal habitat. He planted thousands and thousands of trees. He started rotating his crops and livestock differently to protect soil health.
The changes paid off. As they gave up fertilizers and pesticides, their expenses dropped, increasing how much money they could earn per acre. Their health issues improved, as did the biodiversity on their farm.
"We have to improve things, which is entirely possible," he said. "We're still doing all of the things that everyone else is doing on their farms. It's just we're patterning it to a natural pattern."
There is hope for agriculture
There is hope for agriculture, thank goodness.
This is a lovely article, but
This is a lovely article, but it does somewhat tiptoe around a basic question: So, what does happen to yield, exactly, once your organic, ecologically managed farm is working properly?
And, if it goes down very much, and if the old way of doing things was still going to require farming a bunch more land, won't organic farming require EVEN MORE land? What's the tradeoff going to be like if organic farming gives us farms which have, in themselves, more biodiversity, but require destroying even more wilderness to get it?
Vandana Shiva has often said that organic small farm yield can be just as high as you get from chemical-intensive methods. And I've often seen it argued that small farms with mixed crops can actually get more food per acre than large scale intensive monocropping--they can use the soil more thoroughly, planting stuff in between other stuff. But those approaches are labour intensive. We're going to have to make farm work a much more desirable career if we want to multiply the number of people doing it.
For anyone interested in
For anyone interested in agriculture future it is worth listening to “regenerative” agriculture podcasts. Interviews of and by John Kempf of scientists and regenerative agriculture growers around the world are encouraging. Damaged soil can be restored, carbon sequestered and crop yields INCREASED. The nutritional content of food grown using a regenerative focus is also improved as soil biota is restored.