Andrew MacDougall: Finding Ecological Solutions for the Farming Industry

The farming industry has had a strange relationship with ecology over the years. They have been maligned by claims they shoot native species, suck up water greedily from nature and the people, and pollute our countryside with pesticides, all whilst producing the food many of us subsist on. So why haven’t ecologists worked with them more closely?

At the recent NØF 2019 Conference, Tanja Petersen and I sat down with Canadian ecologist Professor Andrew MacDougall, who has been working with the farming industry for the past six years to quantify their contribution to ecosystem services. We talked about the often damaging public perception of farmers, how his stereotypes were challenged by working with them, and the biggest problems the industry will face heading into the next fifty years.

Tanja Petersen (TP): You’ve been working the the agriculture industry for 6 years now. How did the farming project come about?

Andrew McDougall (AM): They actually reached out to us. It’s a large farming organisation in Canada that’s about ten years old. The original idea was that they were interested in providing ecosystem services; growing carbon, growing bees, and then selling them on as a commodity. Payment for ecosystem services is a concept which has been talked about quite a bit, but it’s usually not driven by farmers.

So they reached out to us and told us they needed someone to measure what they’re producing, which is one of the biggest limitations with ecosystem services.

Sam Perrin (SP): There’s often a bit of a dichotomy in ecology when talking about urban and rural or agricultural populations. Do you have any stereotypes challenged when you stated working with the industry?

AM: I’m from a small town in east coast Canada, and my mum grew up on a farm. In a sense I felt kind of blue collar growing up. So I wasn’t necessarily biased against farmers, but I thought for sure they were all about chemicals and that they didn’t care about the environment, which is completely not true. These are conventional farmers, they produce corn, soy, etc., they use pesticides and herbicides, in the name of running a farm business. But their environmental position, their ethic was stronger than anything you could have imagined. A lot of them are interested in stewardship, in conservation of the environment, but either don’t know how to do it or can’t afford to do it because of economic pressure.

"I’ve learned a lot about farm economics recently. One of the biggest challenges is hitting the right target. You have to produce enough to avoid starvation, but if you overproduce, prices crash. It’s a continual stressor for farmers."

“I’ve learned a lot about farm economics recently. One of the biggest challenges is hitting the right target. You have to produce enough to avoid starvation, but if you overproduce, prices crash. It’s a continual stressor for farmers.” (Image Credit: Andrew MacDougall, Guelph University)

SP: You’ve worked on a lot of farms in your life, did you find that was necessary to communicate effectively with farmers?

AM: Not really. I have worked on farms before, I was a jackaroo on a sheep station in Morella, central Queensland, I worked on an egg farm in Canada, I did an undergraduate thesis in farming. But the common currency was conservation and environmental stewardship. Most of the time I didn’t even mention the agricultural background, it didn’t ever feel relevant.

TP: During your talk you brought up something which surprised me, that overproduction is very bad for the farming community.

AM: It creates price instability. I’ve learned a lot about farm economics recently. One of the biggest challenges is hitting the right target. You have to produce enough to avoid starvation, but if you overproduce, prices crash. It’s a continual stressor for farmers. Global markets dictate price. If there’s oversupply, prices crash and then it affects income. So it’s been a problem globally in industrialised agricultural nations for most of the 20th century. The exceptions are the Great Depression, World War II, the big droughts America experienced in 1953 and 2012. In general we produce too much food and it’s bad for prices.

It wasn’t an issue I’d heard of beforehand. I’d assumed that food production would track population growth, but it’s not that accurate at all. Demand and price don’t always necessarily connect. It’s far more about how much is produced. There’s stories of thousands of litres of milk being dumped, because farmers overproduce and can’t sell it. So there’s a lot of food waste and loss of income from overproduction as well.

Farmers are providing a service, and we’re eating the food they provide, there should be a stronger connection there. It’s a little easy to keep farmers as scapegoats, when it’s a bigger societal problem concerning the food we eat, food wastage, varying demand.

SP: What are some of the big issues facing farmers at the moment?

AM: Water quality for farming is one, especially in North America. And drinking water. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are increasing, so drinking water problems are starting to surface, so that motivates farmers for sure. In fact I would say now, groundwater issues exceed carbon issues in terms of the day to day interest. Carbon is global, but drinking water is what comes out of your tap. It’s that simple.

SP: There’s a lot of talk amongst the general public, and to some extent ecologists as well, about too much water going to farmers. That can sometimes generate outrage. But it’s a service that farmers need to survive. Is there too much of a disconnect between people a where their food comes from?

AM: I’d have to say yes. Farmers are providing a service, and we’re eating the food they provide, there should be a stronger connection there. It’s a little easy to keep farmers as scapegoats, when it’s a bigger societal problem concerning the food we eat, food wastage, varying demand. We’re in the midst of plenty of food trends right now, there’s all sorts of demand for boutique, special food. That stuff’s expensive. And it increases export and movement. So the consumer is driving a lot of environmental problems as well. The farmers get scapegoated, the farmers are told they’re responsible for huge environmental impacts. But we’re all in this together. Farmers can feel defensive, and attacking them just isn’t constructive. We need to find shared solutions.

We can flush stuff down the toilet, and we can see an algal bloom, but it still doesn’t affect many of our lives directly… By and large, the ‘environment’ isn’t scarce enough.

TP: That awareness of the economics behind ecological decisions, is that something we need to be learning at an earlier age?

AM: Certainly in the agricultural industry. Plant ecologists measure biomass and plant production all the time, with whatever ecological model we’re testing. Farmers do that for crops, but they also have to worry about pricing. Any environmental solution for farming has to be about both production but also cost. Things like land sparing and payment for ecosystem services are an attempt to commodify it. But there’s no market for that yet. It’s like trying to grow a new food product that no one wants to eat. Until we figure out a way to make a market for it, it can work, but it’s not successful enough to make a massive impact.

TP: Redesign in agriculture has often been a product of a situation of extreme scarcity. What kind of situation would tip the scales right now?

AM: Scarcity is essentially an economic term which confers more value to a resource. Like competition for a limiting resource in ecology. We all fundamentally need oxygen, but there’s no value in it, because we’re not competing for it, it’s not limited. The environment is kind of like that. We can flush stuff down the toilet, and we can see an algal bloom, but it still doesn’t affect many of our lives directly. Some parts of the world like China has had a huge problem with environmental degradation, parts of North America too. But they’re an exception. By and large, the ‘environment’ isn’t scarce enough.

It’s the next frontier. Unfortunately it’s about making people scared enough. “If I drink that water I’m gonna get sick, so I want my water not to make me sick. Fix it. I’ll pay taxes for that.” But we don’t want people to get sick. We need to find an alternative motivation.

SP: So how do we get to that point, without affecting human health?

AM: This is where science needs to come in as a provider of information. We’re not very good at communicating that sort of urgency. The information’s there. We know what’s going on in terms of problems with water, climate change and such. We need to take that information and turn it into something that feels urgent.

Australia killed their carbon tax. We have a carbon tax now in Canada, and as soon as there’s a conservative government it’s going to be dead. So we’re trying, but there’s something missing in how we communicate.

Holstein_dairy_cows

If farmers produce excessive amounts of milk, the market becomes flooded, and prices crash (Image Credit: Scott Bauer, United Stats Department of Agriculture, CCO)

TP: What would be your advice for someone starting work outside of academia in something industry based?

AM: The big thing is communication, outreach, connecting with people. These problems are more than an individual thing. They’re team based, society based. You need to talk to people, listen, collect information, and try to put the pieces together. That’s the advice I have – try to get involved. In research it could be a collaborative network. If you’re in industry it could be about reaching out and listening. There’s a range of motivations out there, from pure economic to business to environmental, and they’re all kind of asking the same question now. The head of groceries in Canada, they’re all about environmental stuff, they just need information that’s not confrontational. That’s where communication comes into play.

SP: What is the biggest problem that agricultural industry will face in the second half of the 21st century?

AM: My first answer has to be technological limitations. Our ability to produce food now has been driven by several key innovations. Fertilisation, tractors, disease control, now genetic modification, those things have all created this super production system, but there are no new innovations on the horizon that can double what we do already. And the environmental impacts are starting to loom. But if the population’s going to grow, we need more food. but at the same time we need to protect the environment.

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