François Labelle, Executive Director, MPSG – Spring (March) Pulse Beat 2020
Starting a new decade, it’s easy to think in terms of what the future will bring us. If only there were an easy way to tell what that would be. Many of us can remember the year 2000 and how it was going to change the world. Computers were going to crash and bring everything to a halt. Other than someone turning the lights off at midnight, New Year’s Day 2020 was uneventful.
Well, what will 2020 bring us? Let’s look back at what the last 100 years have brought us. In agriculture, there were four main developments:
- Process to produce nitrogen fertilizer
- Development of hybrid corn
- Introduction of pesticides
- The internal combustion engine.
One of the top items of the last 200 years was barbed-wire fencing. Wow! We have come a long way.
Looking forward, we have many new shiny things coming, but how many of them will still be shiny in 10 years or even be around in 100 years?
These top-four developments of the last century are all under scrutiny now and will continue to be for some time.
Nitrogen fertilizer production is a very high carbon user, and this brings up discussions about climate change and sustainable production. We are fortunate with pulse and soybean crops being able to produce their own nitrogen — a real definite plus for growing our crops. Much work has been done to get cereals and other crops to also fix their own nitrogen, but that is still a ways away.
How about other fertilizers, and researching ways to get more efficient use out of them — not only in placement but to influence the roots and soil microbes to work symbiotically to get better use of our applied fertilizers?
That could be important when considering the sustainability of phosphorus supplies, which come from a finite source and could run out in the future. It’s important to continue this discovery research to improve fertilizer use, but in the short-term, growing pulses and soybeans is a good start. We should all be implementing the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program as well — right source, right rate, right time, right place.
The development of hybrid corn saw a dramatic increase in yields, but also ushered in breeding advancements that affected other crops. First, corn hybrid reported increases in yields from 20-plus bushels per acre to 60-plus — a huge gain. The first hybrids were produced by traditional breeding methods of crossing two different lines and then crossing four lines. When hybrid corn was developed, no one questioned it, how times have changed. With all the work on genetically modified organisms and gene editing, there is discomfort that some of these new crop varieties are questioned for safety and people are scared of changing the genetic makeup of the environment. It’s hard to grow crops without seed.
In the 1940s, two major products hit the marketplace and became widely used very quickly — 2,4-D and DDT. Both products were hailed as wonder drugs. My father said that during this time people thought that 2,4-D would end wild mustard and sow thistle on the farm. He told me this while driving through the countryside in the ’70s when there was a particularly bad infestation of sow thistle. It also reminded us of that when we were rouging wild mustard in the flax field. DDT is long gone in most countries due to environmental concerns, human toxicity and quickly developing resistance. Many other pesticides have come and gone, and we have several more under scrutiny all the time — even glyphosate.
Pesticides have been very valuable to our cropping systems, and it is hard imagining what farming would look like without some. There is a lot of pressure from environmental groups, the food industry and the public to reduce or eliminate pesticides. Few growers want to see this happen, so it’s all that more important to look at the responsible use of pesticides.
Internal combustion engine
The introduction of internal combustion engines to our farms allowed a single person to work more ground quicker than horses could while requiring less labour than steam engines. They transformed our farms. But with climate change and pressure to lower our carbon footprint, we are seeing an evolution to electric or other systems. Reducing our carbon footprint can be looked at as a way of improving our bottom line. Using less fuel, saving fuel dollars — who can complain? But this may mean changing a lot of our ways.
Learning from history, we can tackle the next decade with a sense of the present and view to the future.
Growing pulses and soybeans are a great option — less nitrogen fertilizer. Then, we need to research ways to get better use of other elements such as P, K and more. The more we understand the soil environment and all the interactions with roots, micro-organisms, the chemicals we apply, disease and insects in the soil, the better off we’ll be. Soil health has become a real focus of research and we need to continue funding this area. MPSG is on it. Some of your dollars are invested in this space.
How seed is developed, who develops it, and how is it going to be paid for, are all coming issues for the next decade. With the proposal to impose royalties on seeds, we will need to re-assess our variety development and testing involvement. Your dollars have been matched with government dollars to develop new varieties and traits, but now if there will be royalties, do we continue in these programs? Do we get a share of royalties? How best do we deal with new technologies? Everything from funding to getting consumer acceptance is all a going concern.
MPSG must be involved in all these discussions, with the goal of trying to influence the system with growers’ interest in mind. It’s not only about having shiny new varieties. Farmers need to make a profit.
Pesticides will see lots of scrutiny for many years to come. As growers, are you seeing benefits for all products used? Are you getting a return on your investments? Are we all using them responsibly? If we all know the answers to these questions, it’s much more defendable.
I strongly suggest growers review MPSG’s work with the On-Farm Network program doing replicated trials. We have tested some products that show there is little or no benefits to using them — no payback on your investments. We need to do more work in this space and all farmers need to ask the question about all the products they use.
The easiest way to increase your bottom line is to not spend money on items that do not work.
I wish I had an answer to the internal combustion engine topic, but committing to efficiencies is essential. MPSG needs to focus on what we can influence, and this is not our area of expertise. It would be interesting to have an electric tractor.
At the end of the decade, what will be most important — farming profitably, being sustainable and not harming our environment?
MPSG will continue to provide the best information to farmers so that you can make decisions that will benefit your farming operations.
Let us know if there are areas you would like us to focus on.
Have a great and safe growing season!