I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 18 of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food.
I will start with a few reminders. Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House Order of November 25, 2021. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. So you are aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking, rather than the entirety of the committee. Screenshots or taking photos of your screen is not permitted.
Colleagues, I would remind you to follow the health protocols.
Otherwise, this isn't our first rodeo, so we'll get right to it.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Monday, January 31, 2022, the committee is resuming its study of the environmental contribution of agriculture.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses for this two-hour panel.
With us today by video conference from the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food, we have Dr. Gilles Saindon, who serves as the assistant deputy minister of the science and technology branch; Dr. Louis-Pierre Comeau, landscape and soil carbon research scientist; Dr. Ed Gregorich, research scientist, agrienvironment division; Dr. Reynald Lemke, research scientist with environmental health; Dr. Judith Nyiraneza, research scientist, crop nutrient management; and Dr. Mervin St. Luce, research scientist, Swift Current research and development centre.
Welcome. We're happy to have you here before our committee.
We're going to allow for up to 15 minutes for opening remarks from the entire panel of witnesses we have today, and then we're going to proceed to questions.
Perhaps, Mr. Saindon, you would like to start. We have 15 minutes collectively for you and the other witnesses today. I turn it over to you, my friend.
My name is Gilles Saindon and I am the assistant deputy minister in the Science and Technology Branch at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. It's a pleasure to see you all as you study the environmental contribution of agriculture.
I am participating in this session today from the unceded traditional lands of the Algonquin Nation here in Ottawa.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the Government's initiatives related to the science of soil health for Canada's agriculture sector.
Over the years Canada's agriculture sector has consistently taken steps to reduce its environmental impact, with support from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) science activities aimed at developing innovative, environmentally friendly practices. These efforts have allowed the sector as a whole to increase productivity without significant increases in emissions.
AAFC research and programs have and continue to guide agricultural production towards sustainable and resilient agroecosystems and agricultural landscapes. In the context of a changing climate, we aim to manage agriculture's use of natural resources in a way that enhances the resiliency of the sector, fosters new economic opportunities and supports long-term competitiveness without exceeding the system's natural capacity.
Soil conservation and health have always been core priorities for producers and for AAFC, building on a long history of our scientists conducting world-class research through a network of 20 research centres distributed across Canada.
These scientists identify innovative practices that help to build resilience in soil; reduce erosion; increase soil organic matter and cell carbon, which is in turn partially offsetting the agricultural sector's greenhouse gas emissions; and, of course, improve crop productivity in the process.
These and other efforts have contributed to the widespread adoption in the Prairies of reduced and zero-tillage practices, reduced use of summer fallow, and improved crop rotation.
Due to these actions by producers, agricultural soils in Canada have gone from a net carbon source to removing 9.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in 2020. As a result, farmers are not only conserving soil health and productivity but are also making a significant contribution to combatting climate change.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is working with the provinces and territories, farmers, and other Canadian agriculture and food stakeholders in continuing to develop and implement innovative solutions that contribute to improving the quality, yield, safety and sustainability of the food produced by Canadian farmers.
AAFC's science experts are contributing to the development of foundational science knowledge as well as informing the design of policy and programs to support producers' efforts across Canada to adopt novel practices and technologies.
Beneficial management practices, BMPs, are practices that reduce or eliminate an environmental risk. BMPs developed, tested and recommended in Canada cover a range of agri-environmental practices including nutrient management, shelterbelts, reduced tillage intensity, energy efficiencies and renewable energy, as well as other practices related to greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration.
The scientific body of knowledge has shown that BMPs such as reduced tillage, planting trees, silvopastures, rotational grazing, improved crop rotations and converting marginal cropland to permanent grassland can promote carbon sequestration, which improves soil health while offsetting emissions, particularly in regions where soil has previously been degraded.
In 2018-2019, AAFC began the development of Agroecosystem Living Laboratories, where farmers and scientists work with other stakeholders to codevelop, test and implement best management practices and technologies on working farms.
This work is further advancing under the natural climate solution fund, which seeks to leverage nature to fight climate change. Under this fund, an investment of $185 million for 10 years supports the expansion of the Living Labs network across Canada.
The primary objectives of these living labs are to store carbon on agricultural land to keep it out of the atmosphere, reduce greenhouse gases, improve land management practices and support other environmental benefits such as biodiversity, water quality and soil health.
Although we have had successes, many unknowns remain. Our scientific work continues to decode the complexity and interactions across the landscape, identifying opportunities from natural climate solutions or from new digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence and satellite imagery, which are also being integrated into crop and soil monitoring and forecasting.
Today I am joined by five Agriculture and Agri-food Canada scientists, to help answer your questions: Dr. Louis‑Pierre Comeau in New Brunswick; Dr. Ed Gregorich in Ontario; Dr. Reynald Lemke in Saskatchewan; Dr. Judith Nyiraneza in Prince Edward Island; and Dr. Mervin St. Luce in Saskatchewan.
These experts are all well recognized, both nationally and internationally, as experts in their fields and in the development of sustainable cropping systems.
I would like to reiterate that the agricultural sector has an important role to play as one of Canada's oldest and most important environmental stewards. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is working to support farmers in this goal to ensure that the sector's environmental impact continues to shrink while its economic output and the health of our soils continue to grow.
Thank you for your time.
I'm happy to take any questions.
Mr. Chair, my colleagues would be pleased to introduce themselves to give you additional information on their area of expertise, which will help direct the questions to the witnesses who can best answer them.
Thanks. I appreciate the answer.
One of the areas, I would say, where the Government of Canada, departments and bureaucracy could play a role is this. There was a report recently that basically said that we have to reduce animal husbandry and animal agriculture if we want to fight climate change. I would argue that grazing is protecting some very delicate ecosystems, including native grasslands that make up a large part of my riding.
There is a product, an organic compound, out there, 3-NOP, which is a feed additive, especially for dairy cows, that could reduce methane emissions anywhere between 30% and 80%, as studies have shown.
This food additive has been approved in the EU and for use in the United States, but it continues to languish waiting for approval here in Canada, because instead of treating it as a feed additive or feed supplement, we're treating it as a medicinal compound, so it's going through veterinary health medicine rather than just as a feed compound. It could play a significant role in reducing emissions and protecting the environment. Why is Canada treating this product, which is an organic compound, so differently from other countries, especially the EU, which is very risk-averse in approving new technology?
I guess my push here.... I realize it's in health. I know about the studies that were done at the feedlot in Lethbridge and in Nanton and also in my neck of the woods.
Why are Ag Canada and your studies not pushing back on the fact that there should be some harmonization here when some of these new innovations and technologies come out, which are proven and being used by some countries that we trade with? I would encourage you to push hard on Health Canada to get this product approved as quickly as possible, knowing that you have done the studies in your department that show how effective it is.
I want to quickly change subjects here. You mentioned emissions reductions and carbon sequestration. I'd like to know what role, if any, your department had in the announcement at COP26 for the 30% reduction in fertilizer emissions. You talked about the innovation and technology that's happened, like 4R nutrient stewardship, for example. You talked about zero till. We are probably up to 70% more efficient in fertilizer use than any other country in the world.
What role did your department play in that announcement at COP26, if any?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and good morning, everyone.
My name is Louis-Pierre Comeau. I speak to you from Fredericton, New Brunswick. I would like to begin by recognizing that the land where I am is the traditional unceded territory of the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq people.
I grew up on the south shore of Montreal and spent part of my childhood on my family's sugar bush. I received a a biology degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a master's degree in soil science from University of Saskatchewan and a Ph.D. from University of Aberdeen. I also completed postdoctoral studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As a research scientist with the federal government, my research focuses on landscape and soil carbon. Specifically, I'm investigating a way to replenish soil organic matter from wetland, agricultural and forest land.
My long-term scientific goal is to contribute to knowledge about why some carbon molecules can remain stable in the soil for thousands of years. I currently lead a pan-Canadian survey project that investigates the relationship between land use practices and carbon storage.
Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. Chairman.
My name is Judith Nyiraneza, and I am based in Charlottetown in P.E.I. I am a soil scientist by training. I conduct research on nutrient management in potato-based systems. I am now leading the P.E.I. living lab project, with an overall objective of enhancing soil health and water quality.
In this project I am working with growers to test different management practices, including cover crops ahead of potatoes with and without manure, and testing different tillage regimes. We are evaluating their effects on soil organic matter, potato yield and nitrogen cycling in the potato plant and soil systems, and on soil aggregation.
I would be happy to answer your questions.
Good morning, Mr. Chair. Thank you for this opportunity.
My name is Mervin St. Luce, and I am a research scientist in soil fertility and cropping systems at Swift Current in Saskatchewan. The major aims of my research program are to gain a better understanding of nitrogen cycling and dynamics in cropping systems and to develop best management practices to enhance soil health and nutrient use efficiency.
I have conducted and continue to conduct research on the impact of pulses on nitrogen dynamics and use efficiency in various cropping systems, the influence of 4R nutrient management practices on crop productivity and nitrogen use efficiency, and the influence of management practices on soil organic carbon dynamics.
Currently I am co-leading a project aimed at improving yield and nitrogen use efficiency in canola production across Canada, and also leading a new project on developing a soil spectral library for rapid and cost-effective assessment and monitoring of soil organic carbon across western Canada.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I look forward to answering your questions.
If I may, I'll just say a few comments at the beginning and probably go to my colleague in Prince Edward Island, Judith, to talk a bit more about the living labs, which is a direct engagement with producers.
As you mentioned, we have a number of programs. You've mentioned clean tech, which is a program that is in place to help with the implementation of clean technology on the farm.
As part of nature-based solution programming, we have two components. One is the development of living labs, which I mentioned in my comments with $185 million over 10 years to implement these living labs across the country. There is also an on-farm climate action fund, which is $200 million over a three-year period. It was launched a little after, but they are companion programs. One deals with the development of science for new BMPs, one is in collaboration with stakeholders, and the other one is to provide funding for the producer to implement some of the existing BMPs on their own farm.
There was also an announcement in the budget about supplementing these funds for on-farm action, but that will just come in in the months to come.
Maybe I'll pass it to Judith, who is speaking from Charlottetown, because she spends quite a bit of her time working with producers along the lines you just mentioned.
I will pass it briefly over to Judith, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to thank the witnesses for taking the time to participate in today's meeting. I'm impressed with the amount of knowledge we have access to this morning because of them.
Mr. Saindon, correct me if I'm wrong. It is my understanding that the on-farm climate action fund has a lot of rules, so producers have to fill out paperwork and forms. It's a good program, but would it be possible to consider something more decentralized that puts the decision-making power in the hands of the producers who actually work on their land?
In your view, is it realistic to do it this way, to go through a process to assess submitted practices and reward them financially, which could sustain them in the long term?
I don't know who could answer this question. Perhaps Mr. Saindon could.
I would now like to return to the Canadian Organic Standard.
We're trying to help producers be more environmentally efficient. At the same time, the government announced that it would no longer fund the review of the Canadian Organic Standards. It wasn't a huge amount of money. Personally, I'm having a hard time understanding this decision.
Don't you think we should be funding this review, especially since it's a federal standard that allows our producers to secure their certification and the international market in terms of exports?
Don't you think we should be giving more encouragement to our organic producers, who already have to pay to be certified?
It seems to me that handling the review of this standard is the least the federal government could do.
We have several soil and carbon capture experts here with us. I'm not sure who would be best suited to answer the next question.
Mr. Barlow addressed the feed additive 3‑nitrooxypropanol, or 3‑NOP. Here, 3‑NOP is considered medicine, but elsewhere it's considered part of feed. I'm not a scientist and I don't want to question that, but I do want to better understand the process, given that it can greatly improve performance with respect to gas emissions.
As a side note, could one of the witnesses give us an order of magnitude as to the effect that leaving soils in permanent pasture can have?
Since we began our study, we've heard a lot of praise for pastures as being extraordinary carbon sinks, but we were also told that we might need to reduce livestock farming. Mr. Barlow pointed out the contradiction earlier.
How do we know which version offers the best solution?
I'm willing to believe either version. We're going to need meat. If we stop producing meat, we're going to have to import it. I see a problem there.
I don't know who would be able to talk to us about this briefly.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Again, thank you to our witnesses. We are presented as a committee with an incredible wealth of knowledge today.
The theme of my question is on soil biology. I'm not sure who would best be able to take this question. Building into my question, we know that in the soil, under healthy conditions, there's an incredibly complex relationship between various micro-organisms and the plant itself. They involve protozoa, bacteria, fungi and nematodes. When those are all in balance, we have a system that allows a plant to prosper and to be very productive.
What I want to know is, from AAFC's perspective, what is the current state of federally funded research into soil biology specifically, and what promising pathways do you see as a result of that research?
I will attempt to answer these questions.
Soil biology is very important for soil health and nutrient cycling. You mentioned some of the specific biological components. They basically help plants to grow, capture nutrients and hold water.
As part of the soil health research, we're currently focusing a lot on soil biology. A lot of efforts have been placed in genomics, as well in finding out specific biological components that are critical to the agroecosystem for resilience and sustainability.
This research is not done on its own. It's part of the entire soil health effort, which is made up of the biological component, the physical component and the chemical aspects of soil. Not all of the efforts are going to be placed in soil biology, but in recent years, more effort has been placed because of new technology that has been developed to be able to better understand and identify various beneficial micro-organisms in the soil.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you to the witnesses for joining us today. I appreciate the amount of expertise that we have access to.
Dr. Saindon, I appreciate that you mentioned in your opening comments that your department's focused on novel practices and technologies.
I recently met with representatives from the fruit and vegetable sector. They're concerned with the eroded capacity of the pest management centre as a result of flat budgets and inflation, which supposedly reduced the number of projects they're able to do. As I understand or as I'm told, there's a $9-million budget, mostly from CAP funding, meaning the five-year cyclical round of funding. They're calling for more permanent funding mechanisms.
Over the past five years, has the number of projects that have been funded been reduced because of the factors of inflation and an erosion in funding? Particularly in the fruit and vegetable sector, this kind of research that feeds into the adoption of newer or novel practices and technologies that have a more benign environmental footprint is critical to the industry and to the success of that sector, particularly as they compete with a much larger industry further south.
I'm wondering if you can comment on that interaction between the amount of research being done and the funding levels.
The theme of my question is going to be international collaboration.
During the course of this study, we heard reference to countries like Australia that are engaged in a national soil strategy. One of our witnesses, Mr. Eric Toensmeier, was talking about France, which in the next couple of decades has a national commitment to convert 1.5 million acres of cropland to agroforestry.
Our committee is aware that this year in Glasgow there is going to be the world congress of soil science, where several thousand of the world's top soil scientists are going to come together, and I'm sure soil health and how we can best combat climate change are going to be major themes.
From AAFC's perspective, could you inform the committee on what your collaboration with international partners is like? Are there any countries in particular that your department looks to as places that some of this cutting-edge research is being developed? Can we take advantage of that open-source knowledge to best inform our practices and policies here in Canada?
Mr. Chair, I can probably take this question.
We collaborate extensively with a number of countries on the way we collect information about climate change, the way the measurements are done and all of that. Some of our largest contributions or activities are probably with the United States, our neighbour to the south, especially in the area of using long-term rotations.
We try to pair with our living labs initiative and expand the scope of this particular initiative, and this has resulted in a lot of international effort that is taking place now with Europe. We have an arrangement with France, and in fact we will be hosting an international conference next year on the use of living labs and this citizen-engaged type of approach to the research. That is something that has expanded in Europe as well as with the European Union in general.
We have projects here and there as well, scientist to scientist. I don't know if any of our colleagues here on the panel have some of these and may want to expand, but it's usually the United States and Europe. At this point in time, those are where we have the bulk of our interactions.
I'd like to thank all the witnesses for being here with us this morning.
My first question is for the assistant deputy minister, Mr. Saindon.
According to 2016 Census statistics, 70% of farms are small.
What is the department's approach to small farms in terms of applying new technologies?
In the past, one thing I have worked on is creating windbreaks and reduced tillage. These techniques have been around for over 20 years on small farms.
How does the department encourage small farms to get involved? I feel they could play a much bigger role than they do now.
What is your perspective on this, Mr. Saindon?
It's not an easy question to answer, but it's certainly a good question.
In terms of an agro-ecological approach, it's not a very definite term, so it's not easy to give a definite response to, but certainly one of the factors is biodiversity, whether at the cropping system level in terms of a more diverse rotation or in management factors that encourage and maintain below-ground biodiversity as well.
There certainly has been research showing that diverse crop systems or rotations tend to be more resilient and tend to favour carbon sequestration and other benefits. If you're including a legume into that diverse rotation, you're also reducing your need or requirement for synthetic nitrogen across the rotation.
Indirectly, there are many aspects of an agro-ecological approach for which we have evidence of beneficial outcomes. As to whether we can get to 180% of a monoculture approach, I can't really respond to that directly.
That's a very good question.
We have to meet the crop demand, and that is a very difficult process to enact. Research has been ongoing in this area for many decades, and we are still pushing forward to be able to match the crop demand with the supply from both the fertilizer and the soil.
We definitely want to maintain yields, especially with the new varieties that have high yield potential. We are updating the fertilizer recommendations, as time goes by, for new varieties.
As we all know, climate change is having some impact. Whether it's drought or excess moisture, that can also have a major impact. Even if we have the right amount of fertilizer applied, unless we have the right conditions, we will not get the optimum yield that we targeted.
Thank you, Mr. Saindon.
I'd also like to talk about transportation. We've spoken at length about carbon storage and better agricultural practices. I mentioned grassland earlier. Any of the witnesses who would like to tell me if anything else can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock besides using 3‑NOP, please go ahead, I would be interested.
I'll give you an example. Let's say cattle are grazing in a remote area. An ecosystem is created. Now, if you move that cattle hundreds or even thousands of miles away by train or truck, that's bound to hurt agri-environmental performance.
In your studies, do you take into account transportation-related factors peripherally connected to farming?
Do you feel we could improve our regional processing infrastructure to keep transportation at a bare minimum?
For this question, I wouldn't be able to speak on the policy component.
In terms of regenerative agriculture, there are so many different definitions of this terminology. Basically, it's looking at food production within a natural system as much as possible. That includes both pesticide reduction and, depending more on the soil, building the soil diversity ecosystem to be able to produce food.
Within our current sustainable production systems, this is being encouraged. Diversifying crops and systems could be described as part of enhancing regenerative agriculture. We have different crops providing different carbon sources, different types of carbon, into the soil, encouraging different micro-organism abundance and activity. Each micro-organism has a different role to play, so our current production system in some way already includes regenerative agriculture. It's not, based on my understanding, an organic system entirely. It encompasses both a normal conventional system with some organic principles to be able to maintain the soil and produce food in a sustainable and clean way.
I can't speak to the other aspect of your question.
Thank you, Mr. MacGregor.
The bells haven't started, colleagues. I would like to ask for your indulgence for two or three minutes for a line of questioning. Once we're done, I'm happy to carry on as you see fit, whether or not there may be a couple of minutes for each party to finish up any final questions.
We have gone through four rounds, and I think the questions have been extensive, but as has been mentioned, we have folks who have a lot to offer, so I'll just quickly move forward.
Mr. Lemke, I'm particularly interested in asking you a couple of questions. You mentioned you're with the research station in Saskatoon. I had the opportunity to be there a couple of weeks ago. I was really impressed with the work that's happening.
Obviously, there is a tension right now in terms of the 30% reduction in emissions associated with fertilizer. It has been quoted as a 30% reduction of fertilizer, which is not the government's policy, but it is a 30% reduction in emissions.
How important is plant breeding going to be for the government to reach its goal, particularly the focus on perhaps certain varieties that can maintain yield but perhaps require less fertilizer? I know these are 10-year cycles, for example, but do you see aggressive plant breeding as an important public policy tool to close that gap, especially at a time when markets are signalling to perhaps use even more fertilizer to drive yields even higher with the food crisis right now globally?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the question.
The short answer is that I think the selection of varieties moving towards the highest nitrogen use efficiency and water use efficiency that we can manage is certainly extremely important. It's a bit of a longer-term endeavour.
At the moment, from my perspective, we have technologies and management strategies that could achieve a considerable reduction of emissions from fertilizer use without impacting yield. There's a lot of work to do in terms of applying that to the landscape, but we have an understanding from the research and evidence from the research that would suggest that we have the tools we could apply and would be successful.
In the longer view, absolutely, moving towards varieties that have higher nitrogen use efficiency is extremely important for a number of reasons, not just for the greenhouse gas emissions but also for other environmental benefits, as well as in terms of economics.
Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
We've had a good discussion around plant breeding and how climate impacts are affecting agriculture.
We met recently with representatives of the eastern Ontario clean plant hub, the program up in New Liskeard. Again, with reference to the chair's comments earlier, they're concerned, because this an area that deals with the propagation through tissue culture of a number of crops and new incoming viruses on grapes, apples, asparagus, garlic, hops, tender fruit and potatoes.
The land for that program was sold in 2021. The research scientist, Dr. Becky Hughes, retired in 2012, and it has been maintained by technicians since then. The industry wants to know whether AAFC will continue that research position, because they believe that they can carry on that program elsewhere with an agreement between OMAFRA and the University of Guelph, but they are looking for AAFC to continue that research position. Can you comment?
I only have one question, maybe for Dr. Gregorich, because he's had the most interventions on carbon soil sequestration.
We've had testimony here about agroforestry being one of the most efficient practices for carbon sequestration. I made mention earlier of France as a leading example worldwide, with an ambitious plan to convert many acres of cropland into land that supports agroforestry. In Canada, of course, the federal government, in a different department, has the two billion trees initiative.
Dr. Gregorich, I'm wondering, just to wrap things up, if you have any further comments to add on agroforestry, in particular on which crop species would be the best, and maybe on how AAFC can tie in with the government's committed goal of two billion trees to help our agricultural sector?