This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2022

Farming for the future

Conventional farming on P.E.I. is being challenged by a new approach to agriculture

Jill MacIntyre

large potato field with a tractor in the distance on the left middle and pine tress along the horizon on the right side, there are clouds in the sky

Photo by Jim Feng; Design by Valerie Thai

Severe and increasingly regular hurricanes, increased temperatures altering fishing grounds and crop development, drastic shoreline erosion, and the destruction of vulnerable ecosystems. These are all climate change impacts that are already happening on Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) and will only get worse in the future without immediate climate action.

As a low-lying island province nestled in the Atlantic, P.E.I. is heavily romanticized in pop culture and tourism ads as an idyllic, pastoral province. With a major housing crisis, an underfunded healthcare system, high levels of poverty and food insecurity, and a fragile economy that is very vulnerable to climate change, the reality for most islanders is very different from this romanticized picture.

P.E.I., also known as Epekwitk by the Mi’kmaq, is a largely agricultural province, with almost half of the island used as farmland. Agriculture as a sector is highly susceptible to climate change due to unpredictable weather and rainfall patterns and increasing temperatures. According to Sally Bernard, a certified organic grain farmer on P.E.I., “climate change is just like this concrete umbrella that we’re carrying around. It’s just looming at all times.”

Agriculture on P.E.I., and most of Canada for that matter, is largely industrial and conventional agriculture, which is characterized by the heavy application of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, intensive irrigation practices, and the use of monocropping, which is the practice of planting a single crop on vast areas of farmland year after year. Farms on P.E.I. are shrinking in number but growing in size, and this consolidation of farmland has been ongoing for decades. The local agricultural sector is dominated by agribusinesses, which are corporations that produce or distribute goods and services related to farming and the farming itself. While P.E.I. has several main crops, these agribusinesses have entrenched the monocropping of potatoes into P.E.I.’s land use patterns with devastating environmental consequences. In recent years, the island has borne witness to a drastic reduction in soil health, a significant loss of crop diversity, and many fish kills (which result when fertilizer or pesticide runoff creates an anoxic event in local waterways, thus destroying an aquatic ecosystem including fish and other organisms). When farmers work under a contract with these agribusinesses, they are generally expected to yield a certain amount of crop. This is not to say that local potato farmers disregard the environment, but rather that they face many external pressures and often work within tight profit margins. There are many local environmental organizations, including watershed groups whose mandates are to help manage and restore a local ecosystem, working with farmers to improve environmental outcomes. According to a representative of a local watershed group who wishes to remain anonymous, “[Farmers] are often very willing to work for [environmental] groups or with groups. They don’t want fish kills. They’re community-minded…. But there’s also a lot on a farmer’s radar.”

While industrial agriculture is the dominant form of agriculture on P.E.I., monocropped agriculture is not economically or environmentally resilient and small shocks can disrupt the sector. This vulnerability is evident in the current potato export crisis on P.E.I., as millions of pounds of potatoes are unable to be shipped to the U.S. due to the discovery of a contagious crop disease on a local farm. Crop diseases are often associated with industrial agriculture through poor soil quality and a lack of crop diversity. Despite high rates of food insecurity on P.E.I., these farmers have been forced to destroy over 136 million kilograms of edible potatoes.

The dominance of industrial agriculture on P.E.I. is being challenged by local agroecological farmers. Agroecology is a social movement, body of knowledge, and agricultural mode developed in concert with the transnational peasants movement La Via Campesina and their mission to empower small farmers, fishers, and Indigenous land protectors globally. This style of farming prioritizes on-farm biodiversity, livable wages for farmers, and respect for the non-human environment.

In short, agroecology is the practice of ecological farming while working within the confines of one’s natural ecosystem, thus promoting resiliency through biodiversity. Agroecology can be thought of as a large umbrella term that many farming methods could fall under, including intercropping (growing multiple crops together to promote soil health), agroforestry (growing crops in cultivated forests to promote carbon capture in soil), planting trees near bodies of water to prevent fertilizer runoff, crop rotation, utilizing cover crops to prevent soil degradation in the winter, rotational grazing of livestock, using organic manures, and many more. Nancy Sanderson is a small-scale farmer who grew up on a conventional farm in Saskatchewan and began farming agroecologically with her partner after moving to P.E.I. She describes agroecology as “trying to work with nature rather [than] fight against it wherever possible.” These farming methods create vibrant agro-ecosystems and provide natural ecosystem services including pollination, pest control, and nutrient cycling.

Agroecological farming can also sequester carbon through improved soil health, making it a powerful tool in the fight against further climate change. Methods such as no-till or low-till farming, planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion, and rotational grazing of livestock have all been demonstrated to capture atmospheric carbon and store it in soils, similar to the way that trees store carbon during their life cycles. Adam MacLean is a sheep farmer from central P.E.I. “My role as a farmer is to harness as efficiently as possible the sun and the rain and sequester a … ton of carbon,” says MacLean. Genuine resilience to climate change does not just mean the ability to weather vulnerabilities, it also means removing or mitigating the root stressors causing harm in the first place.

Agroecology shares some methods with Certified Organic farming in Canada, a system where farmers are certified by an outside body as using certain environmental practices on their farm, including forgoing non-organic pesticides. Agroecology takes additional steps toward promoting ecosystem health, however, and encourages community-based agricultural values like collective land ownership, respect for Indigenous knowledge systems, and achieving gender and racial equity within agriculture and beyond.

From an economic perspective, agricultural research also indicates that agroecology can be far more productive per hectare than conventional monoculture methods. Agroecological farming is also greatly resilient to economic and environmental disasters. Multiple studies and surveys conducted across South and Central America, where agroecology is more common than it is in Canada, found that agroecological farming is much more resilient to hurricanes and other “natural” disasters that are becoming more frequent and severe in the ongoing climate crisis.

This resilience is noteworthy for agriculture on P.E.I., as weather variations that impact crops are becoming much more regular. In early September of 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Canadian Maritimes, causing widespread devastation and crop loss. With sustained winds of over 155 km/h and heavy rainfall, many Maritime farmers reported major crop damage.

From a climate justice perspective, P.E.I.’s total greenhouse gas emissions are negligible compared to the rest of Canada, but P.E.I. will be disproportionately impacted as a geographically and economically vulnerable province, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. Resilience is an increasingly relevant concept to conversations on climate change. While neoliberal governments and corporations attempt to individualize the concept of resilience and make it a matter of personal responsibility to prepare oneself for the climate crisis, climate change is a systemic problem that requires increased system resilience. While individual agroecologists are making meaningful efforts to improve their on-farm environmental outcomes, they often lack governmental support and are also frustrated by governmental inaction on climate change in Canada and beyond.

Despite the clear benefits of agroecology, various levels of government have failed to provide enough support for the growth of agroecology as a movement on P.E.I. due to the disproportionate power of the agribusiness sector and the Canadian export model of agriculture. There are many powerful agribusinesses on the island, and a few are vertically integrated, meaning that they control all stages of the production process including seed development, agro-chemical application, packaging, shipping, and processing.

Many agroecological farmers and environmental groups believe that the provincial and federal governments favour local agribusinesses and their contracted growers over agroecologists. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, little relief was offered to smaller-scale and agroecological farmers who also could not access many federal or provincial supports designed to support industrial-scale farms and agribusinesses. Many local agroecologists found this hard to swallow, as they believe that subsidizing larger-scale producers allows those producers to maintain artificially low commodity prices that make agroecological goods seem highly priced in comparison to consumers.

Agriculture in Canada, including in P.E.I., is largely export-oriented, meaning that the majority of food produced in Canada is produced for export to other countries while we also import a great deal of food. Canada is the fifth largest agricultural exporter in the world and is the dominant exporter of common crops such as durum wheat, soy, canola, and oats. This export orientation means that government subsidization tends to prioritize monocropping these cash crops over more environmentally sound methods.

Jordan MacPhee is an agroecological vegetable farmer from central P.E.I. who farms with carbon sequestration in mind. According to MacPhee, agroecological farming produces many positive externalities for the environment and the broader community: “You’re … rehabilitating [the land] and you’re bringing carbon in from [the] atmosphere, you’re … not leaching [contaminated water] out into the waterways, you’re not poisoning … the lungs and the intestines of your neighbours by putting nitrates into the groundwater and air … there’s so many side benefits that are invisible in the short term.” However, these benefits often do not result in financial gains for those agroecologists, especially in the early years of farming. “When you get home from the market, and you’ve worked 80 hours that week, and you only make 200 bucks, and you do the math and you made $2.50 an hour. That’s when it’s like, what am I doing?” he says. MacPhee mentioned that with experience and shared knowledge, agroecological farming can provide a livable income even in the current economic system. However, many individuals who are willing to provide their communities with environmental and social benefits through agroecology do not survive the initial startup phase of farming due to a lack of financial support and the exceedingly low number of agriculture schools in Canada that teach agroecological methods.

There are certainly local and federal government programs aimed to support the growth of smaller-scale agroecological farming, including small grant programs, a provincially funded mental health program for island farmers, and bureaucratic positions to oversee the growth of agroecology on P.E.I. However, many farmers view them as inconsequential and piecemeal strategies relative to the resources and financial support received by industrial-scale farms. Many local agroecologists believe that helping to provide farmers with a livable income whether through a universal basic income, direct farmer subsidization, or better grant programs is a way to support community resilience in the fight against climate change. Financial security allows farmers to weather the impacts of climate change, invest in mitigation strategies, and choose farming methods that sequester carbon over conventional farming methods that often provide a steadier income.

While the provincial government of P.E.I. has adopted some of the most ambitious emissions reductions and climate change mitigation targets in the country, with commitments to reach net zero energy consumption by 2030 and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, 25 percent of provincial carbon emissions come directly from the agricultural industry. Instead of adopting agroecology as a climate change mitigation strategy or compensating agroecologists for their positive environmental externalities, the provincial government continues to subsidize a style of agriculture that degrades soil quality, releases significant greenhouse gas emissions, and often harms local biodiversity.

Agroecology is certainly not a silver bullet to climate change, but its burgeoning success can provide hope amidst a time of converging climate, economic, and health crises born of the capitalist world order. While we should hold our governments to account and expect them to support drastic climate change mitigation policies, including the pursuit of agroecology, the past several years have shown that we cannot wait for colonial, capitalist governments to set the pace of change required to combat these converging crises. Agroecology in Canada as a movement still has not reckoned with its role in the climate justice movement, how agroecologists can support Land Back and Indigenous sovereignty while farming in a colonial country, and how to adopt food justice frameworks that prioritize the food needs of marginalized communities. To spread the seeds of agroecology further, agroecologists and their allies can work in concert with the climate justice and Indigenous sovereignty movements to promote and adopt food systems that are rooted in community, equity, and food justice instead of the environmental and labour exploitation borne under the industrial international food system.


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