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Opinion: Climate, Environment

Cover Crops, Canola and Climate Change – the Importance of Innovation for Sustainable Farming

Leighona Bernstein Leighona Bernstein

Leighona Bernstein, Communications Manager at CropLife InternationalLeighona Bernstein explores how agricultural innovation is helping Canadian farmer Jake Leguee combat climate challenges on his 13,000-acre farm.

On a farm roughly the size of Manhattan, Canadian grain and oilseed farmer Jake Leguee has a lot to think about. From the seeds that go in the ground during springtime, to the harvester he relies upon in the fall, Jake ties his operation together with a couple of core values – the strongest being the importance of environmental sustainability.

“By using biotech crops and using crop protection products and fertilizers, I believe that helps us be more environmentally sustainable,” Jake says.

Jake plants biotech seed varieties that can handle increased stress and uses an Integrated Pest Management strategy to keep his crops healthy. But he still faces challenges, many of which are related to climate change. To handle increasingly erratic weather patterns in Saskatchewan, Jake says that improved varieties of canola and other crops are necessary to keep his farm operations going in the future.

Jake Leguee’s 13,000 acre farm in Saskatchewan, Canada.

During the flood years of 2010 and 2011, the Leguees were only able to plant 25 per cent of their fields because they were so wet. Yet in 2017, they were dealing with the opposite – a drought year that only saw 3.5 inches of rain. Canola is an indeterminate crop when it comes to water-use efficiency. That means, because it flowers over a longer period of time, the crop can handle periods without enough water and may be able to recover some yield if favourable conditions return. Maybe in the future, plant biotechnology can help the crop recover even more yield. Jake says he is hopeful that new seed varieties will be available to help farmers like himself handle the weather changes so that if his kids want to take over the farm one day, things will be better than when Jake started.

Another tool the Leguees use to manage pest pressures from a changing climate are neonicotinoid seed treatments to combat flea beetle.

“You could lose a 1,000-acre field of canola over the course of a couple of days to flea beetle,” Jake says. “I’ve seen it happen.”

The seed treatment comes on the seeds they purchase and is very targeted, only affecting the beetles that chew on the leaf of the plant. Without the treatment, the Leguees and other farmers would have to resort to spraying or they would lose a significant portion of the crop. Another pest issue for farmers is Sclerotinia, a mould that grows throughout the lentil crop and is caused by the plant being too wet for too long.

“Fungicide is the best answer for it,” Jake says. “If we didn’t have access to fungicides for the lentils, I honestly don’t know how we would grow them.”

These technologies are essential in the fight against pests as well as the fight against climate change.

Similar to the neonicotinoids, these products enable the Leguees to grow more on the land they have, which reduces the need to turn wildlands into cultivated lands. This helps to preserve biodiversity and reduces carbon outputs.

To further contribute to their goal of environmental sustainability, the Leguees have started planting cover crops.

“The idea of cover crops is to keep the ground microbiologically active” Jake says.

Active soil is healthy soil which stores more water and more carbon. About 70 per cent of cover crops’ greenhouse gas mitigation potential comes from soil carbon storage. Cover crops also help keep the topsoil intact and erosion at bay.

No-till is another mechanism the Leguees employ to help combat climate change.

“Tillage is so destructive to the soil that we just try to avoid it whenever we can,” Jake says.

Farmers typically till to control weeds and prepare the soil for planting. With herbicides and herbicide-resistant biotech crop varieties, farmers like Jake can leave the soil alone and allow the micro biodiversity within it to thrive. Also, when the ground is disturbed, it releases carbon which is then compounded by each pass with the tractor.

The Leguees rely on innovation in agricultural technology to farm sustainably and look after the environment. This helps reduce the impact climate change has on farming and allows them to grow high-quality crops despite the changes. Jake says leaving a legacy means leaving the land better than it was before. And through agricultural innovation and integrated pest management (IPM), Jake and his family’s legacy will continue.

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