Innovation drives improved sustainability
A farmer taking in the spectacular canola crop—helped by innovative Canadian technologies.

A comparison of Canadian versus European approaches. Canadian agriculture has embraced innovative technologies and products, something that has been achieved through an efficient regulatory framework and widespread adoption.

By Dr. Stuart J. Smyth

Canadian agriculture has embraced innovative technologies and products, something that has been achieved through an efficient regulatory framework and widespread adoption.

The foundation for this success is that Canada’s regulatory framework for agricultural biotechnology is science-based and that farm adoption has been firmly rooted in economic sustainability.

It is what has positioned Canadian prairie farmers among the most sustainable farmers on the planet.

Despite the success Canadian farmers have had regarding the application of sustainability practices, other countries—blocks of countries—appear unwilling to follow the path we walk.

The European Union (EU) has adopted the polar opposite approach to Canada, establishing a precautionary-based regulatory system that restricts and bans products.

This approach has successfully approved only one innovative crop technology this century.

Food production outside of the EU remains relatively unchanged despite several decades of transformative agricultural innovation.

It’s not just a few countries; it’s Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Republic of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

The Great Canadian Agricultural Sustainability Transformation

The key priority to achieving superior crop yields is efficient weed control.

Weeds produce more significant seed amounts and use water and nutrient resources that would have been used by crops.

Poor weed control is a leading cause of lower crop yields. When genetically modified (GM), herbicide-tolerant crops were commercialized in the mid-1990s, farmers rapidly adopted them as this technology greatly improved weed control.

Because of that, we’ve seen the widespread adoption of GM crops significantly drive sustainability advances in prairie agriculture.

Over the past decade, GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions from agricultural production have plateaued in the prairie region.

Removing tillage as the leading form of weed control has additionally resulted in soil moving from being a net emitter of carbon to sequestering carbon, with Saskatchewan soils annually sequestering 0.4 metric tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Some 90 percent of farmers identified that the efficient weed control provided by glyphosate allowed them to have continuous, efficient weed control and keep tillage out of their land management practices.

Some crop fields in Saskatchewan have been at zero tillage for 20 years or more, significantly reducing soil erosion risk.

Herbicides also play a role in weed control strategies. Previously, the types of herbicides used had higher environmental impacts compared to those we presently use.

Farm-level data on in-crop herbicides used between 2016 and 2019 quantifies that the environmental impact of these herbicides is 65 percent lower than those used between 1991 and 1994.

The wide adoption of GM crops into rotations has reduced the biodiversity impacts generated by food production through more benign herbicides.

Saskatchewan farm-level data on fertilizer use identifies a 102 percent increase in the total volume of fertilizers applied between 1991–1994 and 2016–2019.

Forty percent of this increase is due to the addition of 7,000,000 crop acres that are no longer summer fallow.

Yields have increased by 28 percent between these two periods.

Farmers are more efficient when nitrogen use efficiency is examined—although total fertilizer use increased by 102 percent, nitrogen use only increased by 29 percent. This means that farmers are presently producing more food per acre per pound of fertilizer than was previously the case.

These results quantify the importance of fertilizer, yield increases, and the absence of restrictive fertilizer use regulations.

Costs of European Innovation Aversion

European farmers have been predominantly prevented from adopting the innovations enjoyed by Canadian farmers, being forced to rely on older, outdated crop production methods.

Tillage is still the leading form of weed control throughout Europe.

The failure to adopt GM crops in most of Europe results in the annual release of 33 million tonnes of GHG emissions, making agricultural GHG emissions 7.5 percent higher than if GM crops had been adopted at similar rates to Canada.

These figures were published in a 2022 report entitled “Genetically modified crops support climate change mitigation.” See https://www.cell.com/trends/plant-science/fulltext/S1360-1385(22)00004-8

While two European Union nations—Spain and Portugal—do grow GM corn, farmers in the rest of Europe are denied access to this sustainable innovation.

The European Union’s precaution-based regulatory approach has resulted in bans on several chemicals vital to crop production.

One group of chemicals in particular has been targeted and banned. Neonicotinoids are a class of chemicals used to coat seeds to reduce insect damage to the seed and resulting plant.

Bans on the use of neonicotinoids resulted in significant crop damage, with an estimate from Dr. Patricia Ortega-Ramos of Rothamsted Research—a non-profit organization in Harpenden, England—placing the economic value at £13 million (CDN $22 million) in UK rapeseed production. At the same time, seeded acres dropped from 1.8 million in 2012 to 1 million in 2020.

Rapeseed oil is the second-largest source of vegetable oil globally and is considered the most important biofuel feedstock in the EU.

On September 1, 2018, five neonicotinoid insecticides were officially banned in France. However, sugar beet production declined by 30–50 percent—a severe enough drop in production that France had to rescind the neonicotinoid ban in 2020 for three years.

There is presently a great deal of pressure from environmental organizations to ban glyphosate—the most widely used pesticide in Europe—which, it is estimated, will result in economic losses for farmers ranging from a low of €3 to €553 (~CDN $4.37–$806.53) per hectare.

These same environmental organizations ignore the evidence that copper sulphate, a common organic pesticide, is four times more toxic to the environment than glyphosate and that, per a study published in the National Library of Medicine, over 50 percent of tested organic chemical compounds were found to be carcinogenic.

The European Union’s current agriculture policy framework, the Farm to Fork Strategy, calls for:

  • 20 percent reduction in the use of fertilizer;
  • 50 percent reduction in the use of pesticides;
  • 50 percent reduction in the environmental impact of pesticides;
  • 3x more organic production.

Mandatory reductions in fertilizer use will directly lower the yields of all crops, fruit, and vegetable production, resulting in the EU abandoning efforts to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (see https://sdgs.un.org/goals).

Because European governments have banned the production of GM crops, their farmers are forced to rely on older, more toxic chemicals commonly used in the 1990s.

As part of the efforts to triple organic production, highly toxic organic chemicals have been exempted from compliance with mandates to reduce the use of poisonous chemicals. The intended tripling of organic production will significantly increase the adverse environmental effects of organic production.

Benefits from Embracing Innovation

By having innovative technologies and products banned by their respective governments, European farmers are disqualified from experiencing the benefits Canadian farmers achieve.

Canada’s science-based regulatory framework has assessed the risks of innovative products and determined them to be no riskier than existing products.

This has aptly proven to be the correct decision, given the evidence of reduced environmental and biodiversity impacts. Canadian farmers have greatly improved the sustainability of food production due to innovations and by ensuring that economic sustainability is the priority for decision-making.

By adopting a precautionary-based regulatory approach, Europe has prevented the commercialization of vital products that countries like Canada have shown to drive improved sustainability. It has threatened to remove many products that will further increase food production’s environmental impact, not lessen it.

Current policies and political practices ensure that European food production will be less sustainable than in the past. Compared with other innovation-embracing countries, Europe is abandoning its commitment to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Stuart J. Smyth, Professor and Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Enhancement Chair, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Saskatchewan

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